By Kevin Featherly
Dolan Media Newswires
Minneapolis — Looking to get their share of transit money, leaders from eastern Twin Cities suburbs are planning a $1.4 million, 18-month study to identify mass transit options for the Interstate 94 corridor into Wisconsin.
The leaders, known as the Gateway Corridor Commission, hired CH2M Hill, a global engineering, consulting and construction firm with offices in Mendota Heights.
Ted Schoenecker, transportation planning manager for the Washington County Public Works Department, said the commission is approaching the study with no preconceived notions about which mass transit option would be best for the stretch of I-94 from St. Paul into Wisconsin, known as the Gateway Corridor.
Some options include a light rail line from St. Paul to Woodbury; a light rail line to Woodbury with a bus rapid transit link to Eau Claire; and a commuter rail line from St. Paul to Eau Claire that could share infrastructure with a high-speed passenger rail line that might one day run from St. Paul to Chicago.
Schoenecker said those are a few among many possibilities. “There could be 400 options beyond that,” he said. “So determining the best options is really the gist of what this study is going to do.”
The commission will launch its study in September and should complete it by spring of 2012. The study will determine potential ridership, project alignment, transit mode and costs for a transit way along the corridor.
Clint Gridley, Woodbury’s city administrator, said developing a mass transit strategy along the corridor is one of his city’s economic development priorities.
Woodbury has benefited from being at the junction of I-94 and I-494, and from being a 20-minute drive from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“We see that our reliance on our airport proximity and road system is not the full aspect of the transportation options that we need to consider,” Gridley said. “Because as we grow as a population, and as east metro grows, we cannot keep expanding our highway system. There are limits.”
An estimated 300,000 people live along the Gateway Corridor, and projections indicate the population along that route will grow by 30 percent by 2030. Woodbury is expected to grow from roughly 60,000 to about 85,000 during that time.
“It becomes a quality-of-life benefit in the sense that our citizens can have alternative ways to get to the Twin Cities, on top of just driving in,” Gridley said. “It will also enhance the attractiveness of our properties, by increasing property values.”
Gridley acknowledged there is some tension about the prospect of increased mass transit. Residents of some communities along the corridor wonder whether the investment is worthwhile.
“Washington County is transitioning,” Gridley said. “There are some who still see us as a rural county, and see the future as rural. And some see it as suburban and continuing its growth. So we are in this interesting transition zone.”
Woodbury is firmly in the urbanization camp. The city’s mayor, Bill Hargis, is a longtime supporter of expanding mass transit in the area, but he said he is undecided about which form it should take.
“I don’t have a personal favorite,” he said. “Unlike some people in the political world, I favor an intellectual study.”
Such a study, he said, will objectively evaluate the pros and cons of all options, weigh their long-term costs, determine the best strategy for remaining regionally competitive and offer recommendations.
“Obviously, if everybody else is doing light rail, we’d better be part of the light-rail system,” he said. “But if parts are doing light rail and parts are doing bus rapid transit, we need to look at that, and also at commuter rail.
“It’s all about the jobs and bringing companies here that want to do business.”