Gold Line Needs a Change of Direction, Literally

The preferred alignment of the Gold Line/Gateway Corridor running eastward along I-94 from downtown Saint Paul overlaid on a map showing population and employment density as well as other transit routes.

The preferred alignment of the Gold Line/Gateway Corridor running eastward along I-94 from downtown Saint Paul overlaid on a map showing population and employment density as well as other transit routes.

Last Tuesday, the Lake Elmo city council voted 3–2 to reject further involvement in the Gold Line project, also known as the Gateway Corridor. The service has been planned to run through 2.5 to 3 miles of Lake Elmo, but that would take it through some undeveloped areas with very low population density and limited amounts of commercial development. I’ve been disheartened to see planners push this strange routing, so I see this rejection by Lake Elmo as an opportunity to restore some sanity to a project that has literally gone off in the wrong direction.

The Gateway Corridor only came onto my radar around 2010, but it has moved through the local planning processes relatively quickly. Of course, with some of our regional transit planning efforts that take decades, it’s not that hard to stand out as being quick.

When it was first proposed, the Gateway Corridor included a study area extending all the way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin (more than 80 miles from downtown Saint Paul). It has been trimmed back and is now shortened to about 12 miles—still a mile longer than the Central Corridor! The currently preferred alignment runs from Saint Paul through Maplewood, Oakdale, and Lake Elmo, likely with a turn at the very eastern end south into Woodbury (not included in the map above).

Rail and bus options have both been considered for this line, but the rail options have been discarded at this point. It’s currently expected to be built as a bus rapid transit service with a dedicated busway (similar to the route used by the University of Minnesota’s Campus Connector buses).

(MnDOT still has a separate plan to run regional rail service to Eau Claire on the drawing board, though it’s not clear when planning for that route will pick up steam again.)

An eastward transit service along the Interstate 94 corridor has been on the minds of planners for decades, particularly due to 3M’s global headquarters in a mile-wide section of Maplewood just outside of Saint Paul. It’s home to around 12,000 employees, but only two bus routes, the 219 (suburban local) and 294 (express), reach the corporate campus today.

It makes sense to improve service to such a major destination, but I’ve been continually baffled as Gateway Corridor planners have stuck so close to I-94, seemingly a vestige of the original plan to reach cities in Wisconsin. I was even more surprised when they pushed for building large segments in Lake Elmo on the north side of the highway, a suburb that has fought against denser development.

Lake Elmo has a sizable population of over 8,000, but because it is a community that annexed most of its surrounding township, those households are spread across more than 22 square miles of land. Small towns out in rural parts of Minnesota often have densities of 1,000 to 2,000 people per square mile, but Lake Elmo only tips the scales at 360 per square mile.

There has been a lot of development in the city but it’s very spread out because homes are typically placed on large parcels that are two acres or larger in size. Amusingly, the densest blob of population in Lake Elmo is the Cimarron trailer park near Lake Elmo Avenue and 10th Street North.

Woodbury, just to the south across I-94, stands in stark contrast to Lake Elmo. While Woodbury isn’t nearly as dense as the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it has an estimated population of nearly 67,000. It has no traditional downtown that I’m aware of, and was only incorporated in 1967, but has seen explosive growth over the last few decades. It is an almost perfect example of 36-square-mile township becoming an incorporated city, though not quite 2/3rds of its area has been actively developed so far.

Neither of these cities is a poster child for dense development, but Woodbury has at least experimented with more urban patterns, such as at City Walk near Woodbury Drive and Hudson Road.

Personally, I don’t understand the desire to route such an expensive service (currently estimated at $485 million) into almost completely undeveloped area where the local government is hostile to any reasonable density. It could easily go south of the highway through an existing retail corridor—still very under-developed, but hopefully a region that would be more easily fixable with the right incentives in place.

But even with the Gold Line running south of I-94, is that enough to fix the current transit situation out in the eastern suburbs? Metro Transit barely gets into Woodbury today, only serving a small area in the northeast corner of the city, and only operating express bus routes with limited schedules. While the Gold Line would add more stops and an all-day schedule, the stations would all need to be built around the park-and-ride model. While that would probably work alright for workers in downtown Minneapolis or Saint Paul, I have a hard time imagining anyone would use a park-and-ride stuck next to I-94 in order to get to 3M, a destination that’s only a few minutes away on the highway.

The Gateway Corridor really needs to morph into something different—a network that gets a lot more people within walking or biking distance of their nearest stop. If Woodbury was a standalone city, it would be big enough to justify its own transit system. Woodbury has a population comparable to St. Cloud, and is around the size that Rochester was when I was growing up, and both have modest bus systems. While the city doesn’t have a traditional layout with a downtown to act as an obvious hub, it is roughly laid out along mile-by-mile grid with fast arterial streets that would automatically encourage a limited-stop style of service.

Here’s an example of a simple network that could be built out of a half-dozen routes or so to allow local connectivity while also bringing traffic north and west to connect to the existing Metro Transit network. It gets most of the city within half a mile of a bus stop. In a few places, I routed lines along bikeway corridors or created other new routes (such as a bridge crossing just west of the I-94/I-694/I-494 interchange), but it’s likely that such a system could be put together for much less than the current estimated Gold Line price.

Obviously, Woodbury’s low density would be a challenge for successfully implementing a network like this. I just slapped this network together quickly by following major roads, but I think it has a few features that would be critical for success. First, I had four routes converge on the 3M campus northwest of the city, fanning out through the city in different patterns. Second, multiple routes converge at two other hubs: Woodbury Village by I-494 and Valley Creek Road, and Tamarack Village on Radio Drive just south of I-94.

Purely as an example, the purple line extends down Radio Drive all the way to Cottage Grove, since I think there’s a slim possibility of decent suburb-to-suburb service (in this case, perhaps a link between the Gold Line corridor and the Red Rock service proposed along US-61). There’s also some potential here to link to routes along I-494 to cross the Mississippi River into South St. Paul and other southern suburbs.

Before I end, I’ll point out another huge challenge that Woodbury must overcome to rebalance its transportation network. The city has a dearth of decent pedestrian infrastructure, with sidewalks and sidepaths largely restricted to major roadways—and sometimes only running along one side of those roads. Here is a sidewalk map from the folks at ITO—green roadways are the only ones that have sidewalks, while red roadways don’t have any pedestrian infrastructure (pink indicates actual sidewalks, which is a little confusing, and light green indicates dedicated paths that aren’t located next to a roadway—the awkward color scheme is a downside of using this otherwise wonderful free tool).

a sidewalk map from the folks at ITO. Red means no sidewalks.

A sidewalk map from the folks at ITO. Red means no sidewalks.

New bus services through Woodbury would need to have their routes checked for adequate pedestrian infrastructure, and new sidewalks or paths would need to be added where necessary. Woodbury does have a pretty extensive network of off-street paths, however, and it would be important to leverage those routes as much as possible to get people to and from their nearest stops.

The Gold Line really only skims the surface of what’s needed for proper transit service in the East Metro, and current plans undervalue the need for infill development in existing built-up areas. We’re heading toward a zero-carbon future, and preparing for that requires us to make the most use of what we already have.

It will be far better to get existing suburbs to build up their missing downtowns and connect into regional public transportation networks than it would be to abandon them in favor of magical new greenfield plans. Our transit plans need to reach the hearts of these communities rather than bypassing them for green pastures.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at

34 thoughts on “Gold Line Needs a Change of Direction, Literally

  1. Karen

    All in all, the transit planners in this area seem to have no idea how to make sure that transit corridors include major destinations.

    Not looping the Green Line past the Ordway and the Science Museum, two major destinations for people from Minneapolis, and instead sending it through nondescript areas of downtown St. Paul, was a mind-bogglingly stupid decision. Instead, a transit rider has to take the slow #21 bus from Uptown or maybe transfer to the Green Line along the way.

    The Southwest Line’s routing makes no sense, except between Lake Calhoun and Hopkins, nor does the way the Bottineau Line bypasses North Memorial Hospital seem logical.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      While I think the criticism of local planning – that we need to connect destinations/nodes (and park & rides don’t count in my book) – not sure your St. Paul examples fit. It’s a 0.4 mi, 8 minute walk from Central Station to the Science Museum.

    2. Monte Castleman

      Wasn’t the reason for routing it to the “nondescript area downtown St. Paul” was that it was right through the middle of where downtown office workers want to go? If we built it to the Ordway Minneapolis residents that wanted to catch a show now and then would be happy, but the people that use it every day for work would not be.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        Exactly. It serves the downtown office core well (including skyway access right at Central Station), while remaining within reasonable walking distance of the Science Museum and Xcel Energy Center. The Green Line doesn’t need to literally roll past those destinations in order to serve them. Other statistics would say most people could use the walk anyways.

    3. Nick

      You’re assuming that the routes you see are the ones that transit planners wanted. Especially on marginal projects like Gateway, policy-makers (the people who are elected) really influence this way more than trained professionals. Add in the calculus of funding things to keep people in CTIB, and you get… what you see in the Gold Line.

      1. Wayne

        Yeah I think there’s a ton of blame to be shouldered by the people who are really into questionable funding formulas and cost-effectiveness measures rooted in something other than reality. Throw in ‘momentum’ and an unwillingness to go even slightly outside the box once someone’s drawn it and you’ve got a rough outline of our broken transit planning process.

        None of that excuses routing huge transit investments around areas that need it so you can better serve suburban commuters who already have a plethora of options, though. Just because we can understand the dysfunctional outcome doesn’t mean we have to accept it.

    4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      “Not looping the Green Line past the Ordway and the Science Museum, two major destinations for people from Minneapolis, and instead sending it through nondescript areas of downtown St. Paul, was a mind-bogglingly stupid decision.”

      Hm. I don’t know whether it would have been better to route it closer to those things (looks like the Ordway is four blocks from the nearest stop), but I’m pretty sure that the decision should not be driven by asking, “where would people from Minneapolis go in St. Paul?”

      Those off-hour trips are still mostly going to be by car, and aside from hockey games, are pretty low-volume. It’s much more important to make the line serve the many people who are coming and going from the central business district during the week.

      In other words, there’s a lot more commuters than there are concert goers, so it’s hardly crazy that the line would serve them first.

  2. Scott

    Great post. I honestly don’t understand how our regional policy-makers have ended up with such an underwhelming plan for transit. The Blue & Green line extensions, Orange, Gold, etc. all seem to connect to jobs in unwalkable, car-dependent places. And, the vision for future transit improvements in Minneapolis and St. Paul where people are actually transit-dependent, is sad. Is Denver, Portland, Seattle, etc. also spending billions to connect transit to people who don’t want it?

      1. Justin

        I’d be really interested to read more about the those mistakes Matt, I often hear city dwellers here talk about how much better Seattle and Portland are with regards to transit but I never got that impression when I visited either city. Any links would be great.

        1. GlowBoy

          Having recently relocated from Portland, and lived in Seattle during the 1990s (and kept in touch with things there), I can comment a bit.

          I don’t think Metro Transit compares unfavorably with either Portland’s or Seattle’s networks, really.

          First, Seattle: Seattle is in a similar place as the Twin Cities in terms of LRT, with a couple of operating lines. Historically in Seattle, the urban core has been somewhat more pro-transit, and the suburbs somewhat more anti-transit, than I perceive things being here. In Seattle, regional LRT initiatives failed at the ballot time after time, even with 70%+ “yes” votes among city residents, before finally squeaking by in 1996. The failed monorail project was *entirely* a political response by city residents to finally do something within the city since it seemed impossible to get regional consensus for rapid transit. So to some degree the light rail lines that Seattle does have are largely transit running to “people who don’t want it.”

          Where Seattle is ahead the Twin Cities is on BRT. I think they have something like half a dozen BRT lines operating now, with solid ridership numbers. They also have a commuter rail line running between Tacoma-Seattle-Everett, with fairly strong ridership. This is easier to do in Seattle, where much of the population is on a long north-south corridor, rather than the amorphous blob of the Twin Cities.

          One more big plus of Seattle’s service, which I don’t see much of in either Portland or the Twin Cities, is the routing of both local and all-day limited-stop express buses (with the *same* route number) along the same routes. Imagine if at 56th and Chicago I could choose to either board a local #5 Local bus that takes 35 minutes to get downtown, or a #5 Express that only stops at 46th, 35th, Lake, Franklin and 12th on its way downtown, taking barely half the time to get there. Seattle has done that for decades on a number of routes, in addition its newer BRT service.

          Meanwhile, Portland has managed to build a truly regional LRT network including a number of the major suburbs, but most of the politically “easy” routes have been built: Blue line to Gresham, Orange to Milwaukie, Green to Clackamas, Blue to Beaverton and Hillsboro. Most of those suburbs have sufficiently dense concentrations of population and jobs (and sufficient populations of lower income residents) to easily justify their construction. In contrast to Seattle, where regional transit projects repeatedly get put up for public vote (recipe for failure – imagine if we did that for each individual freeway project!), Portland’s regional planners get the local leaders involved in the planning but then go ahead and get the thing built. I think that’s been the real key to success.

          However, there are now strong headwinds. Not putting transit up for public vote, in a state where *everything* gets voted on (one year we had 26 statewide measures on our ballot), has generated a significant backlash. Opposition among the more car-dependent suburbs is much stronger, and this threatens Southwest Corridor (sound familiar?!), the next major rapid transit corridor in the planning stages. The areas that would be served by Southwest are less dense, more car-dependent, and also much less bike/walk-friendly (due to more hilly terrain and lousy infrastructure) than those developed so far. Opposition to a new rapid transit line – even if it’s BRT – is very strong in these areas. Not long ago Tigard residents (one of the *less* transit hostile areas along the line) voted to prohibit the city’s participation. So building transit to people who don’t want it? YES, Portland has that.

          And while Portland’s bus network is excellent, like Metro Transit’s it serves some areas better than others. Being on the very southern fringe of Minneapolis, I’m adjacent to a bus network (515, 540, 539, 538, 535, etc.) in Richfield, Bloomington and parts of Edina that easily rivals what I would find in Beaverton, one of the Portland area’s best-served suburbs. Portland’s bus routes are only two digits, for one thing: the Twin Cities have several times as many routes. Admittedly many of these are rush hour only express service, but at least they exist: Metro Transit runs commuter buses to many suburban areas that TriMet (Portland’s agency) wouldn’t even consider serving.

          So while Portland and Seattle have transit systems that are excellent in some ways, they’re not without their downsides – or major political challenges. In both cities opposition to transit (and bikeway) funding is more organized, and more red vs blue polarized. Neither region has tried anything as challenging as the Gold Line, but it’s not all unicorns and marshmallows out there.

          1. Justin

            Thanks. REALLY interesting to hear the different challenges in comparable metros. Sounds like people out there are culturally and politically a little more militant and polarized, so you get people pushing really hard in both directions, as opposed to our slower but more consensus-driven thinking here.

            Here we might not be as far along in some areas, but I think metro-wide support is a bit better. People across the metro seem to be at least somewhat in favor of transit and bike infrastructure and if they’re not, they’re not going to push to hard against it. Also cool that we have so many bus lines, didn’t know that.

            1. GlowBoy

              A little more on the number of bus lines. These aren’t apples to apples comparisons, just counts of the lines listed on each core transit agency’s website:
              – Portland (metro population 2.3 million): shows 79 bus lines, plus 5 LRT, 1 Commuter Rail, and 2 Streetcar lines. This doesn’t include C-Tran, the transit agency for Clark County, Washington.
              – Twin Cities (metro population 3.5 million): lists , plus 2 LRT, 1 Commuter Rail and 1 BRT line. I believe their list includes the MVTA and SW Transit buses; not sure about the other opt-out agencies.
              – Seattle (metro population 3.7 million): King County (population 1.9 million) Metro Transit lists 225 bus lines (7 of which include both local and limited-stop buses running the same numbered routes, as I mentioned above), plus 1 LRT, 2 Commuter Rail, 1 monorail and 2 streetcar lines. This doesn’t include Pierce Transit (Pierce County/Tacoma) or Community Transit (Snohomish County/Everett), which have their own bus systems.

          2. Nick

            I’d add that Portland and Denver (and Salt Lane City to a more limited extent) both rely heavily on putting tracks in existing or reconstructed freeway and freight trail corridors for their LRT lines. Often skirting the edge of the densest neighborhoods. Sound familiar?

            1. GlowBoy

              Yes, I think that describes at least half the LRT mileage in Portland. In chronological order:
              – Original Blue Line to Gresham (1980s): first half freeway/BNSF corridor, second half redeveloped arterial
              – Blue Line Extension to Hillsboro (1990s): first 3 miles or so *very* expensive tunneling, next few miles freeway corridor, then mostly greenfield (relatively near major employers but NOT adjacent)
              – Red Line to Airport (early 2000s): mostly freeway corridor.
              – Yellow Line to Expo Center (late 2000s): redeveloped arterial corridor.
              – Green Line to Clackamas (early 2010s): freeway corridor.
              – Orange Line to Milwaukie (opened 4 months ago): mostly along existing Union Pacific corridor.

          3. Wayne

            Don’t forget Seattle actually invested in grade-separation for transit through its downtown core. We’re throwing all our transit back and forth all over town with poorly-planned detours with no plan for actual improvements for transit in the core.

            1. Wayne

              Oh and we’re building a nearly 10 million dollar pedestrian bridge in DTE that is going to actually make it impossible ot ever improve circulation at that station with a center platform.

          1. Justin

            Disheartening to hear we’re so far behind in ridership though, even if the system is getting good.

            1. Wayne

              No it’s not. It’s only getting better if you’re a suburban 9-5 commuter who works downtown or live along the green line. For the rest of us who use regular local bus routes the quality has been steadily deteriorating with little in the way of planned improvements.

          2. Nathanael

            San Diego’s a weird case. There are sections of town with extremely high ridership. There are also extensive far-flung suburban areas with low ridership.

            But the second-largest-population and jobs area — UCSD / La Jolla — is very VERY poorly served, which is bound to be a drag on ridership. It’s like Minneapolis-St.Paul if St. Paul had terrible service.

            They’re going to fix that in the next few years with a rail extension.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Yeah, but his money was actually at stake so he built development that was compatible with transit.

        1. Wayne

          Exactly. When you throw public money at land development interests that are in no way coupled to the funding mechanism it’s a recipe for disaster and waste. We’ve got a whole lot of people desperate for better transit that need it now and all we can seem to think about is how to bribe some suburban developers and towns into buliding something slightly denser than SFHs on the exurban fringe. That is *not* what public transit funding is supposed to be for.

  3. Matt Brillhart

    Thank the stars this project is still in the hands of the Gateway Corridor Commission (aka Washington County policymakers and staff) and hadn’t yet been handed off to the Met Council. It would be yet another project for the Met Council to suffer heaps of criticism for poor routing decisions made during a county-led Alternatives Analysis. As a general statement, the outcome of planning transit routes this way seems god-awful if one looks at Southwest, Bottineau, and now Gateway.

    As for the Gold Line specifically, many urbanists are tempted to say “cut it off at the Ramsey County border” (i.e. Century Avenue, with the last station being 3M). While that solution makes total sense from a transit perspective (and truly, the routing between downtown St. Paul and 3M isn’t all bad), the problem with this line of thinking is that the Gold Line all along has been a Washington County project. Ramsey County, to my knowledge, has not been a major driver of this project, at least not initially. They may be more involved now that it has received federal attention, funding from the legislature, etc. I’m not sure Ramsey County would even keep the project rolling if things with Washington County were to fall apart completely. Ramsey County would likely continue to focus their efforts on the Riverview and Rush corridors (which could/should be interlined regardless of mode), putting the Gold Line on the back burner.

    All that said, the biggest loser in any delay or cancellation of the Gold Line is St. Paul’s East Side, an area that sorely needs any attention it can get. Again, the station locations serving this part of the East Side were not terrible (assuming other transit investments like aBRT on East 7th St and the Rush Corridor BRT/LRT will serve other parts of the East Side further from the I-94 corridor).

    To salvage this project, my hope is that Washington County can pressure Woodbury into taking a renewed look at how the Gold Line could be routed through the already built up areas of Tamarack Village and the former State Farm campus, now being redeveloped as “City Place”. Connecting Woodbury’s thousands of entry-level jobs to the East Side of St. Paul should be the #1 priority of this line. Thus far, planners and politicians have failed miserably at making that clear, instead seemingly trying to duplicate/enhance existing express bus service, but with the astronomical price tag of $500MM.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      There is already fairly decent bus service as far east as Sun Ray. There used to be buses that ran through the 3M property to certain buildings. My understanding is that 3M instituted their own private shuttles but I’m not sure how they work or what the transfer arrangements to Metro Transit are.

      I agree there is little in Lake Elmo to attract transit usage, but maybe there should be consideration of restoring service to Cimarron – the old 94S (forerunner to today’s 294) went there until about 1992.

      It should be obvious that Woodbury and Oakdale are both candidates for more transit. I could see both a northern branch via Hadley, 10th, and Inwood, and a southern branch via Century, Valley Creek, and Bielenberg, then both branches east on Hudson Rd. to Lake Elmo Ave. to Cimarron, then back around to the Manning Park & Ride. Now that would be useful.

    2. Nathanael

      Thanks for explaining the local politics.


      Ramsey County did some pretty good stuff with Union Depot and the Gold Line, but they seem to have fallen off the rails (pun intended) lately. Running rail out to 3M would be cost-effective and highly productive, and would benefit Washington County too. The Riverview Corridor is a good but *very expensive* route, and the Rush Line… ehhhhh.

  4. Nathanael

    AAARGH! The current crop of planners in the Twin Cities are idiots!

    OK, it’s bloody obvious what the correct thing to do is.

    Build RAIL — an extension of the Central Corridor — to the 3M site. Then STOP. If enough workers at 3M start commuting in by rail, you can repurpose some of the 3M parking lot as a park-and-ride.

  5. andrew mills

    A requirement for planners and elective official is to pick routes that make no sense.Building Transit centers that are costly and absurd such as the Chi-LAke adding valuable time for the riders.
    THE GREEN LINE is slightly faster than the 16-50 with the trains even stopping midblock it is 10mins slower than the proposed 35mins travel time.The stations are too close to each other .Even the 50 LTD stops bus used have fewer stops bewteen Snelling Capitol .The 16 is almost as fast as the train at times now that the ridership is low on some segments.

    The only useful stations in MPLS on SW LRT is the W lake St station.It doesn’t even connect with N Mpls buses .

    How can the SW LRT match the Central LRT with 10mins headways when demand is so low?

    BRT on 35W should have been a LRT .The BRT are using standard buses ,how will the A-line accomadate the riders for the soccer stadium on A-line.with 40′ buses ?

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  7. dan k

    LOW density = failure and waste money a project that will only benefit a few commuters at the P/R .What I noticed they will be standard buses how will this attract riders to big events when the 40′ buses are crowded?

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