Maplewood council withdraws its support for Purple Line

Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/TNS

The Maplewood City Council withdrew its support this week for the proposed Purple Line bus-rapid transit project until more study can be done to determine the city's best public transit option.

Monday's vote, which was unanimous, came after council members raised questions in the past month about the route of the Purple Line through the city and whether the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed ridership patterns on public transportation, given the rise of remote work.

Mayor Marylee Abrams said that while she supports public transit, "The question is, what transit do we need? We need to figure that out. We need data. I haven't seen any data at all."

The resolution adopted by the City Council calls for the Purple Line's timeline to be extended to allow further community engagement. It was unclear how the Maplewood vote might affect the future of the Purple Line; consent among cities served by the line isn't needed to build such a project.

Formerly called the Rush Line, the Purple Line has been in the works for two decades. It was initially planned to link the downtowns of St. Paul and White Bear Lake, via St. Paul's East Side, Maplewood, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Township. The project has an estimated price tag of $475 million, to be paid for with federal and Ramsey County funding.

But earlier this year, White Bear Lake withdrew its support for the 15-mile line.

Now, planners with the Metropolitan Council, which will build and operate the line, are looking at three possible options for the line's northern terminus: the Maplewood Mall Transit Center; Vadnais Heights, near County Road E or Willow Lake Boulevard; or Century College, which straddles White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi.

A recommendation for the route from the Met Council isn't expected until early next year.

During Monday's public hearing, several Maplewood residents said they opposed the line because it would run partly on the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. Others said that less elaborate and expensive transit options should be considered instead.

Last month, Abrams broached the idea of the Maplewood City Council withdrawing its support after hearing "by accident" that the Met Council was considering using eminent domain to demolish the Birch Run Station shopping center off Beam Avenue to make way for the Purple Line. She didn't learn about it from the Met Council, she said.

The strip mall, half of which appears to be vacant, is anchored by Burlington and JoAnn Fabrics stores and includes a Dollar Tree, a temporary Halloween store and a plasma donation center. It is owned by Arizona Partners, a real estate firm that specializes in reviving troubled retail centers.

In a statement Monday, spokesperson Terri Dresen said the Met Council "is committed to being transparent in this process and the resolution passed by the Maplewood City Council underscores the importance of our continued discussions with the city to make sure we fully understand their concerns."

Dresen added that the Met Council would continue to work with its partners to ensure transit options for everyone.

"This work cannot be done alone, and we look forward to finding a solution that will serve generations to come," she said.