Time to Press Pause on the Gold Line

I’ve tried to keep an open mind to the Gold Line/Gateway Corridor between St. Paul and Woodbury ever since bus rapid transit (BRT) was the chosen mode. Transit improvements in the East Metro are just as needed as in the West Metro. However, the more the project has progressed, the more I see flaws with how it will be implemented. Recently, the estimated cost of the Gold Line increased by $70 million to a total price of $532 million. The reason for the cost increase was the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) demand for more parking and a contingency fund. Appeasing to that demand will, in theory, allow the Gold Line to receive nearly half its funding from the FTA. However, the FTA has given the Gold Line a medium-low rating. These issues have led me to believe the Gold Line in its proposed form is too flawed to justify its extremely high price tag. Instead of going through with the FTA’s demands, I believe we need to pause and reconsider how we’re going to implement the Gold Line.

Rendering of the Gold Line’s Maplewood Station next to the 3M Headquarters. While this station site has a big employer next to it, some of the other station sites aren’t as conducive for transit use. Source: Rani Engineering.

Most of the proposed Gold Line alignment is decent, with most stations serving where people live and work. Not long ago there was debate over whether to have the western terminus of the Gold Line at Union Depot or go through Downtown St. Paul. While Union Depot definitely needs more buses and trains, it doesn’t make sense for the Gold Line to stop just short of the central business district. Requiring people to transfer to the Green Line or local buses to reach downtown destinations would severely hurt potential ridership. Thankfully, the planners realized this and chose to have the Gold Line go through downtown, and a station is still planned for Union Depot on Sibley/Wacouta Street & 4th Street. Now the main issue with the Gold Line is east of the Maplewood Station.

Greenway Avenue Station

The surrounding area of this location is a mobile home park and single-family homes. While there are apartments nearby, I-94 separates them from the station, and there is currently no plan for a pedestrian bridge over the highway (based on the Gold Line designs found here).

The area of Greenway Avenue Station. Just southeast of the station there are several apartment buildings, but as of now the designs for this station don’t include a pedestrian bridge. Source: Google Maps.

Helmo Avenue Station

The surrounding area of this station mostly consists of townhomes and low-density commercial uses. While there is a senior living complex nearby, it’s over half a mile away, so for most people it’s too far to walk. An automotive facility will be demolished for a realignment of Hudson Road and a park & ride lot. The potential positive of this location is the undeveloped land along the east side of Helmo Avenue, which could be used for transit-oriented development. A new bridge over I-94 connecting to Bielenberg Drive will also allow access to the station from the south side of the highway, but the distance to/from the station will be at least half a mile.

The Helmo Avenue Station area. The facility labeled B & A Auto Repair will be demolished for a realignment of Hudson Road and a park & ride lot. Source: Google Maps.

Tamarack Road Station

While there are several businesses surrounding the station site, the wide road with high speed traffic will likely make it unpleasant to walk or bike to/from the station. There is potential for transit-oriented development near the station, but station accessibility will be a challenge, especially in the cold months.

In the foreground is the future site of Tamarack Road Station. The busway and platforms are proposed to be in the middle of the road, and while traffic lights will be installed it will still likely be difficult and unpleasant getting to/from the station. Source: Google Street View.
The area of Tamarack Road Station. The exact location of the station will actually be a couple blocks north of Tamarack Road. Source: Google Maps.

Woodbury Theatre Station

As the name suggests, this station will be next to a movie theatre (given it stays afloat through the pandemic). There’s also a few apartment complexes, lots of surface parking (part of which is used by Metro Transit for a park & ride with express buses), and several businesses that are just within walking distance for most people. However, most of the shops and restaurants in this area, known as Woodbury Village, are just outside walking distance of the station for most people.

Woodbury Theatre Station is proposed to be located at the intersection of Guider Drive & Queens Drive. Source: Google Maps.

Since the suburbs can never have too much parking (sarcasm very much intended), another park & ride station is proposed just west of the Woodbury Theatre Station next to I-494. An on-ramp is proposed to be built, which would allow express buses quick access to the highway. Next to this station a new service center for Washington County is planned.

Between Maplewood and Woodbury, the Gold Line serves areas without a lot of existing development that have good potential for ridership. Additionally, the station areas proposed in Woodbury contain vast amounts of surface parking. While there is potential for transit-oriented development, the last two stops in Woodbury are mainly intended for park & riders. Like most of our suburban area, the proposed alignment of the Gold Line goes through places dominated by large roads with fast traffic.

Recommended Changes

The changes I propose for the Gold Line are significant, but definitely feasible and will greatly increase the potential for ridership while still serving the East Metro. Firstly, on the eastern end in Woodbury I propose the alignment of the Gold Line goes through the Tamarack Village area instead of Woodbury Village, and with an eastern terminus at the so-called “City Walk at Woodbury.” While this area still has vast amounts of surface parking and wide roads, there’s also more destinations that have good potential for bringing ridership to the Gold Line while still having opportunities for transit-oriented development. With the amount of surface parking that is likely underutilized, there’s an opportunity to use some of it as designated park & ride spaces, which Metro Transit already does at certain places like church parking lots and the aforementioned Woodbury Theatre.

The other major change is extending the Gold Line west from Downtown St. Paul to Downtown Minneapolis via Interstate 94. MnDOT is undergoing their “Rethinking I-94” study, which is a good opportunity for both cities to demand bus rapid transit with dedicated bus lanes on I-94. Online (on the freeway median) stations should be placed at Dale Street (Rondo), Snelling Avenue, 27th Avenue near the University of Minnesota, and 25th Avenue at Seward. With this western extension, the chances of the Gold Line being successful are much more likely. Minor improvements to accessibility of stations, particularly in the eastern suburbs, is also needed to make the Gold Line more useful to more than just park & riders.

Stations already in use by the C Line in Downtown Minneapolis could also be utilized by the Gold Line. Photo by author.

It’s uncertain if these changes would give the Gold Line a higher rating by the FTA. However, the FTA’s current demand for more parking is not what a rapid transit route needs. With buses running every 10-15 minutes all-day in both directions, the route needs to serve more than just parking lots. If the FTA doesn’t approve of these changes, then the Gold Line should be fully funded by the state, region, and cities served by the route. Going with the FTA’s demands could lead to the Gold Line being unsuccessful like the Red Line in the South Metro.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.