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Autumn Lehrke Viewpoint: Could bus rapid transit come to south Washington County?

he Red Rock Corridor is a 30-mile transit way that connects the southeast suburbs to the Twin Cities along U.S. Highway 61. In 2007, the Red Rock Corridor Commission completed an Alternatives Analysis that analyzed the potential transitway alternatives. At the end of that study, commuter rail was determined to be the long-term solution, with a short-term plan to increase ridership through express bus service. (Commuter rail is not light rail. Commuter rail only services first shift commuters, whereas light rail has all-day service.)

Several things have changed since the Alternatives Analysis was completed in 2007. First, there are several corridors that are up and running in the region that we can evaluate the performance. The Northstar Commuter Rail, Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and 35W BRT will have ridership data and operating costs to evaluate. In addition, we have 2010 census data that captures the demographic and population changes along the corridor. Finally, the Metropolitan Council has updated travel information to consider.

It is very important that we are making data-driven decisions. That is why the Red Rock Corridor is currently completing an Alternatives Analysis Update. The study will look at the new data just mentioned, update current costs/data for commuter rail and will gather new data on an additional transit mode: bus rapid transit.

Unfortunately, the original Alternatives Analysis did not investigate bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit is very similar to light rail transit and was designed to mimic light rail transit. Bus rapid transit will provide all-day service to the community. This will not only offer flexibility for commuters, but it will also service many recreation opportunities. Bus rapid transit also offers reverse commute opportunities for people who work to the south. Furthermore, bus rapid transit offers relief from planning a transit route. After a rider arrives, they wait no longer than 10-20 minutes, depending on the peak/off peak interval schedule, and the bus will arrive. Finally, the bus rapid transit vehicles are easily accessible. They are designed so that riders enter on a level platform. In addition, the vehicle design includes wider entrances and depending on the size of the vehicle, multiple entrances for ease of boarding. Basically, bus rapid transit is light rail transit but on tires instead of railroad tracks. The other major difference between the two modes is that bus rapid transit is typically half of the cost of light rail transit.

It is important to contrast bus rapid transit to the proposed commuter rail. The two are completely different services. Unlike bus rapid transit and light rail transit, commuter rail only runs a few times in the morning and a few times in the evening to service first shift workers. It does not service other lifestyle routines such as grocery shopping or leisure trips to events. This is due to the fact that there is not a reverse trip or midday service for riders to return to their residence after such a trip. Commuter rail is basically the same level of transit service that we currently have except on tracks instead of tires. In 2007, commuter rail had an estimated cost of $366 million and it was anticipated that the project would not come to fruition for decades. While out in the community, residents agreed that it is worth looking into a different solution that will provide a better transit service to the community, earlier, and at a reduced cost than the current proposal.

After the completion of the Alternatives Analysis Update, the Red Rock Corridor Commission will be positioned to make data-driven decisions on transit improvements in the corridor. The study is anticipated to take about nine months. There will be multiple opportunities for public input including online surveys, workshops, citizen advisory committee, and on the Red Rock Corridors recently created Facebook page.

As always, please feel free to call or email anytime with your thoughts or concerns.

Lehrke represents south Washington County communities on the Washington County Board and is chairwoman of the Red Rock Corridor Commission. She is at 651-430-6214 or