Lake Elmo reverses course, rejects proposed Gold Line bus rapid transit project in split vote

This map shows the refinement to the previously approved Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Gold Line, a proposed bus rapid transit route running from downtown St. Paul to Lake Elmo or Woodbury along I-94. This was the recommended alignment for the line, dipping into Woodbury before ending in Lake Elmo. The Lake Elmo council has rejected the plan.
This map shows the refinement to the previously approved Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Gold Line, a proposed bus rapid transit route running from downtown St. Paul to Lake Elmo or Woodbury along I-94. This was the recommended alignment for the line, dipping into Woodbury before ending in Lake Elmo. The Lake Elmo council has rejected the plan.

A future alignment for the eastern-most segment of the Gateway Corridor transit line is uncertain after the Jan. 5 vote cast by the Lake Elmo City Council to block passage of the public transportation system in the city.

The vote was expected to choose a refinement of the locally preferred alternative route (LPA, which would give direction to Strategic Economics, a research firm working on a market analysis study of the region, but the council instead voted 3-2 to stop work on the study and the bus rapid transit (BRT) project within the city.

Washington County Transportation Planning Manager Jan Lucke presented the council three options for the bus terminal near Manning Avenue in Lake Elmo and asked for the city’s input to give planers and researchers more information about how to plan the line and study what kind of market impacts the line could have on residential and commercial development.

“The LPA does not commit the city council to an implicit or explicit future action,” Lucke said. “We are acknowledging we are at less than 1 percent design, and we also acknowledge that every vote you take takes you further into the project … we want to make it clear that you are not making a land use decision tonight.”

Included in the initial alignment drawings presented to the city council in 2014 were several options indicating where the Gold Line would end with a bus terminal. While one option shows the BRT line entering Woodbury and ending in Woodbury, the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) that was unanimously selected by the Lake Elmo Council was to bring the BRT alignment and bus terminal to Lake Elmo’s southern corridor.

At the Jan. 5 meeting, representatives of the Gateway Corridor and East Metro Strong asked the council to further refine its choice of the options for the end of the Gold Line. Once it found out Lake Elmo’s preference, the group would have further studied and designed the section of the Gold Line that would potentially be built in Lake Elmo.

“A yes vote tonight is going down the path to provide transportation alternatives to your residents — mainly seniors and those with disabilities — those who cannot drive or choose not to drive, and also allowing the study to continue to residential and commercial opportunities within the Met Council forecasts, and to see if those opportunities can be delivered or better with a transit investment,” Lucke said.

Councilmember Justin Bloyer asked if the Metropolitan Council or any other government agency would require a certain type or level of development around the BRT line.

“The area of influence for development for a transit station is a half-mile radius. Outside that radius there is no Gateway Corridor influence,” Lucke said. “Inside that half-mile radius, it could be 100 percent commercial, it could be 100 percent residential, it could be 100 percent recreational, it could be 100 percent student orientated. We would like to see some activity because activity generates ridership, and it would defer to you to decide what level of activity at that station activity and that level of activity that you think fits in.”

The market analysis study, which is currently unfinished, began after the Sept. 15, 2015, council meeting when the city pledged $20,000 toward the $100,000 cost. East Metro Strong, a group working to support public transportation in the East Metro area, funded the rest of the market study.

The information gathered from the market analysis would be used by the city of Lake Elmo and its staff for the Comprehensive Plan amendment in 2017. When the city approved a 12-month residential development moratorium in its Interstate 94 Corridor and Old Village planning areas, the goal was to allow time to review and change the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Currently, the city’s plan includes higher residential growth goals than required by the Metropolitan Council. According to discussions held by staff and the council at several meetings, the section of the city that currently features many high-density housing units is also slated for the transit hub in the Gateway Corridor plans.

Some information that could be gathered in the market study relates to the expected need for housing or commercial development near the end of the transit line to accommodate riders.

However, council members worried the Metropolitan Council would require the city to increase population growth forecasts in order to provide transit riders to help fund the construction and maintenance of the system.

Because the East Metro Strong-supported study is intended to help examine issues related to transit, the council’s vote to stop consideration of transit resulted in termination of the contract with East Metro Strong and payment of 20 percent of costs incurred to date.

“There are some communities that would fight for economic development and that’s what they see for their community and what they value,” Councilmember Julie Fliflet said. “Our city of Lake Elmo fights to preserve our rural character.”

Fliflet said it was important for the council to let their feeling on the BRT project be known now, instead of a year from now and after many votes had been taken.

“That way we don’t derail your process and you can shift the line to Woodbury, where perhaps it makes more sense,” Fliflet said. “I fully support this project and what it brings, but I do not feel it is the right fit for our community.”

“My fear is the Met Council is going to require high density housing, it will,” Councilmember Jill Lundgren said.

Councilmember Bloyer, while continuing to maintain that he personally was opposed to the idea of the BRT line, had voted in favor of the LPA due to his belief that it was best for Lake Elmo as a whole. Citing the study that shows young people and retirees would like public transportation, he felt I-94 would be a better fit for higher density housing than further north in the rural part of the city.

“Put the high density housing down in the I-94 Corridor for the millennials and senior citizens,” Bloyer said. “This is the best move for the city.”

Mayor Mike Pearson argued that by putting in some higher density units near the bus terminal, it would allow more of the land in the southeast section of the city to open up for a commercial business park. After spending three years on the council, and as part of the Gateway Corridor Commission, Pearson said that once he knew more about the project his initial concerns about it were alleviated.

“It shows an opportunity for Lake Elmo,” Pearson said. “I hope we don’t miss it.”

Lucke urged the council to separate the discussion about the long-term outcome of the project and the item that was currently in front of them to vote on, which was a refinement of the council’s preferred alternative so the market analysis could continue.

“We firmly believe you can preserve rural character and still construct the bus rapid transit line,” Lucke said.

The council voted 3-2, with Bloyer and Pearson dissenting, to end the market study and the Gold Line BRT in the city.

While the vote by Smith is at odds with her initial vote in favor of the LPA for the Gold Line in 2014, it is not at odds with other votes taken by the council related to the Gateway Corridor. Smith is also not the only one on the council to change opinions. On Sept. 15, the council voted 3-2 to participate in the study — with Bloyer and Smith dissenting. At that time, Bloyer cited a philosophical opposition to the project, while Smith was opposed to planning for high density housing near the bus terminal. Considering the housing units already approved by the council, Smith said there wasn’t a need to add additional units in the city’s I-94 corridor to meet its housing goals.

The Gateway Corridor will continue with project planning and has already begun to design a new alignment for the Gold Line. The Gateway Corridor Commission said it will determine a process for redefining the eastern end of the route at its Jan. 14 Policy Advisory Committee and commission meetings. The meeting occurred after press time for the Jan. 15 issue of The Gazette.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]