East Metro’s transit time is coming

As long time readers of NewsCut might recall, I’ve wanted mass transit to the Woodbury bureau almost since the day I moved to the great state of Minnesota 26 years ago. As cornfields became shopping centers and neighborhoods, “your time will come” became the mantra of transit experts who had other priorities than the Gold Line, the bus rapid transit route that will connect Woodbury — which has no bus service after 7:50 a.m. — with the civilized world.

But years came and years went and nothing much happened as the state reneged on a plan to help fund the project with bonding, two major transit lines were built, a regional transportation funding scheme came and went, forcing Washington and Ramsey County to try to go it alone.

That’s usually a way to kill a good idea, but the two counties have, to their credit, persisted in the wake of opposition to any threat to Minnesota’s status as a transit backwater.

Today, however, the Metropolitan Council announced that the Federal Transit Administration has “granted” the Gold Line entrance to the “development phase of the federal New Starts program, which funds major transit projects across the country. The designation means local spending will now be eligible for potential matching federal funds in the future,” the Council said in a news release.

Most of the line will run along I-94 before ducking (barely) into Woodbury. Originally it was to include Lake Elmo, but the community voted two years ago to reject the bus line because it would lead to higher-density development in the city. Since then, homes have sprouted so quickly along where the bus was going to run that it might as well be called North Woodbury. Those commuters are on their own.

Despite today’s announcement, nothing’s going to happen soon. In fact, the completion date is now 2024, two years later than the projected timeline just a couple of years ago of a 2022 opening. Even that thwarted my dream of being able to take transit to work (2022 is well after my retirement), and now there’s a slightly less chance that it occurs in my lifetime.

But, the Star Tribune noted today, that doesn’t mean that action isn’t already happening. Mass transit is as much about economic development as it is moving people. A developer has modified original plans for an office park at the 494/94 intersection and shifted to a mixed-use, transit friendly development, just the kind of thing that scared Lake Elmo but keeps Oakdale chugging along.

“Basically, what we’re looking at is anywhere between 700 and 900 units of multifamily housing, around 150,000 square feet of commercial office and maybe 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of retail in this area,” Oakdale Community Development Director Bob Streetar told the paper.

That’s quite a vote for a project that is still years away.

“All you have to do is look at the current competition for the Amazon headquarters to see that large employers want to locate near modern, efficient transit systems. In today’s world the commute goes both ways,” Washington County Commissioner Stan Karwoski said in a news release. “You have people from the East Metro traveling into the core cities for jobs, as well as people in the rest of the region coming east to work at companies like 3M, or in the medical and hospitality industries in Washington County.”

  • KTFoley

    I read all the way to the bottom to see the connections we should all be making today: one of the criteria for selecting the new Amazon headquarters site is mass transit.

    Also, yes, “reverse commute” is no longer an anomaly.

  • Most of us on the east side already know that we are the runt of the litter when it comes to transportation. MNDOT stalled for years instead of replacing the Mississippi River bridge on I-494 when it was really needed, and I-94 was squished down to 2 lanes in each direction just south of the 3M campus for an eternity because they couldn’t be bothered to tend to our needs (a new overpass) as long as the west metro burbs were screaming for more lanes. Mass transit has been similarly sidelined, and the Gold Line has languished in spite of a clear need.

    Lake Elmo will go its own way, I guess -it’s the poster boy for sprawl. It isn’t exactly the hallmark of good governance either, and its denser (relatively!) development in the “North Woodbury” zone is more our problem here in Woodbury than it is back in the tiny circle of quaintness that is the Elmo downtown. My gripe is that LE outsources its traffic and shopping to us. Apparently their idea of 21st century transportation is cars for everyone without a thought for what that means for people who don’t want to drive. And that will be more of us in the coming years!

    • It will be interesting as the retiring owners of large farmland closer to Lake Elmo’s core decide to get their payday when the developers come calling. It should be quite a battle. Same for Afton.

      I wish the route for Woodbury would include the east side of the city, which is where all the retail action is, but beggars can’t be choosers.

      • I was hopeful that there would be a terminus near the City Walk neighborhood at the very least. No matter what, the “last mile” issue will be in play for Woodbury commuters.

  • Guest

    How much easier would it be to get $ for bus rapid transit IF light rail had not soaked up all those dollars????

    • The point of the Gold Line is to connect to the Green Line , which has been far more popular than projections. The Gold Line going to St Paul without a light rail system would make no sense.

  • Pej

    So the southeast corner of the Tamarack/Bielenberg intersection is destined to be a big park-and-ride lot? If the current rate of development in the corridor continues, the developers better plan a multi-level parking ramp now to accommodate the fabled gold line in 6 years…

    • No I think the Woodbury 10 theater parking lot will be.

  • Joe

    It seems pretty straightforward. Good mass transit follows people, and jobs, in fairly sufficient density. Woodbury (and the east metro) doesn’t have those.

    The densest large city in MN is Minneapolis, then St. Paul. The next 5 densest large cities are all in the west metro.

    There are 8 job clusters in the metro with at least 15+ jobs/acre. The west metro has 6 of them, and 3 of those don’t have great transit access yet either. Downtown St. Paul is another. The east metro only has one other one (3M).

    Existing light rail lines connect areas of high population and job densities. The proposed SW would connect three of the denser job clusters in the west Metro.

    Minneapolis: 7,700 pp/sq.mi + 2 large job clusters of 15+ jobs/acre (downtown and the U, where the light rail is), plus two more job clusters of 10+ jobs/acre.
    Bloomington: 2,200 pp/sq.mi + one large job cluster of 15+ jobs/acre (the mall and the airport, aka where the light rail goes), plus two more job clusters of 10+ jobs/acre.
    St. Paul: 6,000 pp/sq.mi + one large job cluster of 15+ jobs/acre (downtown, where the light rail goes), plus one more job clusters of 10+ jobs/acre (the central corridor, also where the light rail goes).

    Woodbury: 1,700 pp/sq.mi. + zero job clusters.

    • I’m not sure when the last time you visited Woodbury, but it’s absurd to say there are no areas where there are at least 15+ jobs per acre. I’ve seen the Met Council maps but it used five year data from ’09-’13 which seems pretty outdated now. And, besides, I would think you build out a transit system for the future, not the past.

      If you look at the “residence for key job clusters” you’ll see that the old data showed a presence just getting to the 694/494/94 interchange. That’s pushed well to the east now.

      //Woodbury: 1,700 pp/sq.mi. + zero job clusters.

      Again, I’m not sure how old your data is but the population of Woodbury (alone) is now 68,000 (as of 2016) in a city of 34 square miles, or 2,000/sq. mile. Oakdale is about 2500/sq. mile. Certainly more than Bloomington. Oakdale seems pretty built out. Woodbury is going to explode, and is exploding now that the area south of Bailey is open.

      Commuting on I-94 should be abominable between the end of the decade and 2024 (which I think we can probably predict will be closer to 2026)

      • Joe

        I try my best to avoid Woodbury, so you are right, I went off the maps. Thanks for the update.

        • Visit us sometime. Bring a bike to ride on our massive trail system.

        • Ha!

          One of Mayor Stephens’ (the rare Republican who wants mass transit) point is that without mass transit, the county can’t provide the jobs for residents compared to the rest of the metro. So, it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario , for sure.

          In the meantime, I’d love to see some data for how many metro communities have the population of a Woodbury without ANY public transit options after 745 am.

      • Postal Customer

        Lots of people in Woodbury, not lots of jobs. My wife could probably find nursing work there, but there are like no engineering jobs. We’d like to move to Woodbury, but the commutes would be hell.

        “15+ jobs per acre”

        What kind of jobs?

        • Tons of engineering jobs at 3M, which is about a 5 minute commute.

          • Joe

            Top 15 employers in Woodbury are all retail, health, or city government:

            #1 and #8 are the school district and the city, respectively
            #2,#3,#5,#9,#10,#12,#15 are health-related
            #4,#6,#7,#11,#13,#14 are big-box stores

            So if you work in Woodbury, you either work at Walmart, in health, or for the city itself.

            Which is like most small towns in America.

          • I would hope so. The city is developing health care campuses.

          • Joe

            Comparing to Bloomington, which we were earlier for transit reasons:

            Woodbury has one employer with over 800 employees, the school district.

            Bloomington has eight (including 3,500 at HealthPartners), comprising the industries of retail, health, hydraulics, tech, engineering, and engine design (as well as the school district and the MOA). 4 of those are the companies HQ, with all the variety of jobs that come with that.

            They really aren’t comparable at all in terms of job density.

    • Sigh. One thing you must understand about transit and density is that they are interactive. If you do not build out transit, people will select automobiles and the low density development that follows becomes the self-fulfilling prophesy. And Woodbury is rapidly becoming a medical destination, creating even more transit need. The lack of transportation investment in the East Metro is shameful, and continues to retard effective public transit.

  • Jim in RF

    I see all those retail and restaurant jobs in Woodbury (and Cottage Grove and similar), probably paying $15/hr or less, and wonder how their workers can afford a car to get there. The first hour of work must be dedicated to paying to get there.