Plans for a new high-speed transit corridor through Woodbury took center stage last week at Washington County Board.
The Gateway Corridor Commission has been studying different options for the Interstate 94 corridor to relieve congestion on the busy highway that connects downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to the east metro and western Wisconsin.
After a two-year study, the commission in October approved the two options - bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail - as best for the region, including either a dedicated BRT lane or LRT line along Hudson Road from St. Paul to Woodbury, said Andy Gitzlaff, senior planner for Washington County.
The Hudson Road alignment for either the BRT or LRT will allow for stops at Union Depot in St. Paul and continue in a dedicated lane stopping at Sun Ray Shopping Center in Maplewood, the Crossroads Business Park in Oakdale, Woodbury Drive and Keats Avenue and Manning Avenue in Woodbury.
He added that the two options will provide all day service and assured the new system won't affect current express bus schedules.
"A big statement we heard from commuters today is 'don't mess with my express bus,'" he said.
A new transit system is expected to see 8,900 to 9,300 riders daily with 11 station stops that promote economic development.
But Woodbury resident Bob Tatreau is not convinced the $400 million BRT is money well spent, let alone the possibility of a light rail project that could cost twice as much.
"Stop sending millions and millions of our hard-earned tax dollars to the social engineers of the Metropolitan Council," he told Washington County Board members March 12, adding that express buses are enough for Woodbury.
Tatreau attended the public meeting, where Gitzlaff presented the plans, to ask commissioners to put an end to the project.
"This is a low density metro area," he said, and new transit poses negative environmental and economic impacts.
But the Gateway Corridor Commission, a panel of various city and county officials who studied the transit options, say there is tremendous need for transportation connecting the east metro and western Wisconsin with Minneapolis and St. Paul.
It's not just about improving mobility, it's to support economic development, protect the natural environment, increase safety and preserve and protect community quality of life, according to the commission's goals.
"Those things are all pieces of it, not just improving mobility or the actual dollar amount it," said Lyssa Leitner, planner for Washington County who's also the business and community outreach representative for the project.
Tatreau said he continues to seek information on whether the benefits of new transit outweigh the costs, but has gotten nowhere.
"How do you quantify an elderly person who has an option to get out of their home?" Leitner said. "You can't assign a dollar number for that."
Leitner explained it's difficult to determine the overall benefits because they don't just stop at the number of riders who opt for public transportation.
New transit has potential to bring additional business to cities along the corridor, thus creating jobs and increasing the tax base, she said.
"People's benefit of transit and how they view it is different," she added. "Some people might view it only in the mobility sense."
According to latest data from the United States Census Bureau, between 2009 and 2011, about 96 percent of those surveyed in Washington County drove to work, while some walked or biked and a small percentage took the bus.
However, studies show the I-94 corridor will see a lot more activity by the year 2030, including a total of 5,800 boarding a BRT daily between downtown St. Paul to Hudson, Wis.
Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, who sits on the Gateway Corridor Commission, said she's heard opinions from both sides - supporters and opponents of new transit.
But she said long-term projections do justify a project of this size in order to relieve a congestive highway and express buses already at capacity.
"We will continue to grow and I really think to remain economically competitive in the region and nationally, globally even, we have to do these studies and make these investments," she said.
The next study is a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which will assure that all branches of government consider the environmental impact before undertaking any major federal action.
The DEIS will also determine whether a stop at Radio Drive in Woodbury is feasible, which would then require amendments to the city's land-use plan.
"Radio Drive would be a great place to add a station," Gitzlaff said.
Woodbury Community Development Director Dwight Picha said the city has not yet considered any zoning changes and it's too early to tell if a bus stop there would be beneficial.
"It's too premature to predict where the whole thing would be going at this point," he said.