Purple Line bus-rapid transit project gets cold shoulder from White Bear Lake City Council

Mar. 10—Plans for a 15-mile bus rapid transit route connecting downtown St. Paul and White Bear Lake have been rolling along in recent months.

Not so fast, says the White Bear Lake City Council, which on a 3-2 vote Tuesday night passed a resolution that opposes the Purple Line line entering the city. It states, the city council "is expressing its desire, supported by a large number of its constituents, to not have White Bear Lake be part of the BRT Route."

The resolution also notes that unlike a light-rail project or a change to a trunk highway, consent of affected cities is not required for a BRT project. Nevertheless, Mayor Dan Louismet said before Tuesday's city council vote that it would send a "clear message" to the Metropolitan Council.

On Wednesday, Metro Transit spokeswoman Laura Baenen said the Met Council will discuss the city's stance with project partners, including the other cities along the planned corridor, Ramsey County and the Federal Transit Administration. The county and FTA plan to split the project cost, which has been estimated at approximately $475 million, Baenen said.

"I would say that the Met Council, the project partners, Ramsey County, have listened to White Bear Lake and are still listening and will continue to listen, however this is resolved," she said.

In December, the Purple Line project, formally called the Rush Line, was transferred from Ramsey County to the Met Council after receiving approval to enter the development phase of the FTA's New Starts program. The phase is the third of five stages in a federal process to complete the Metro Transit line, which has been pegged to start passenger service in 2026.

Plans call for the Purple Line to connect St. Paul, Maplewood, White Bear Township, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Lake. The planned route mostly follows Robert Street and Phalen Boulevard from the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, Ramsey County rail right-of-way (shared with the Bruce Vento Regional Trail) and U.S. 61 north of Interstate 694 into White Bear Lake, which would see 89 electric buses a day, arriving at stops every 15 minutes.


Supporters of the line say it would provide round-trip service to 21 stations along the entire route from early morning to late evening daily, providing access to employment, education, healthcare, shopping and recreation destinations.

In White Bear Lake alone, they say, it will move larger volumes of travelers along U.S. 61 with fewer vehicles, and provide pedestrian improvements including new sidewalks, a key segment of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail extension and new traffic signals.

Opponents, besides some White Bear Lake City Council members and residents, include a group called the No Rush Line Coalition. Critics of the line say ridership will be much lower than what is projected, take roughly twice as long as the current driving time and bus lanes will require tearing out miles of greenery. They also question the projected price tag.

Planners expect the line will see approximately 7,000 average weekday ridership by 2040, according to a federal environmental assessment released last May. The FTA requires that projected ridership be re-evaluated before the Met Council submits a final application for federal funding, Baenen said.


Baenen said Ramsey County planners made adjustments throughout the corridor after considering public input given at nearly 200 events and meetings with more than 3,400 people between 2018 and 2021.

Baenen said that after White Bear Lake residents voiced concerns about impacts to downtown, a transit station was moved from Clark Avenue and Second Street to Seventh Street and Washington Avenue "to better serve the center of downtown" and so it was not on the lake side of U.S. 61. Another change was the realignment of U.S. 61 near the Whitaker Street Station to facilitate a future extension of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail and address existing pedestrian safety issues, she said.

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt lives in White Bear Lake and has been a big supporter of the project.

"The benefits of this line are pretty obvious," Reinhardt said Wednesday.

She said that in 2020 the cities of St. Paul, White Bear Lake, Vadnais Heights and Maplewood approved resolutions of support for the project's preliminary plans. Last year, White Bear Lake adopted a comprehensive plan embracing the Purple Line, she said.

"As far as this resolution, the White Bear Lake City Council has had 23 years worth of input," she said. "They've taken many votes over that time. But I think it's important that we listen to it, and I am confident that the Metropolitan Council will take it into consideration along with the implications."


Voting in favor of the resolution were council members Steven Engstran, Heidi Hughes and Bill Walsh. Kevin Edberg and Dan Jones voted against it. A mayor does not cast a vote under the city's charter, but Louismet had urged the council to pass the resolution.

In November, both Louismet and Hughes were voted onto the council. They were outspoken opponents of the project, with Hughes saying on her website it would cause "the destruction of our downtown community feel."

Walsh and Louismet were the only council members who commented Tuesday on the resolution. It was first introduced Feb. 22, but after they could not agree on the resolution's wording, a vote was tabled and it returned to the council amended and shorter.

Walsh said council members have received a lot of emails from residents both for and against the project, then read a few of them that landed in his inbox. He said one was from a resident who lives downtown and wrote: "I believe the Purple Line is necessary to dampen the effect of increased traffic as areas north of us continue to develop. The addition of 89 buses a day will not be a problem on a roadway that already has 34,000 vehicles passing each day."

Walsh said another resident wrote: "Send the Met Council a message that they maybe can do this to us, but they won't do this with us."