The Gateway Commission is tasked with finding the main east-west transportation route and mode into and out of St. Paul. Some believe that “transit corridors” like this are only meant to serve suburbanites as they travel to and from their jobs. But in order to get political and capital support from Ramsey County and the federal government, any corridor must demonstrate that its route benefits folks who live within the city.
With expensive transport modes like light rail and bus rapid transit, urban cores often look to benefit from the increased foot traffic and property-value stabilization that transit-oriented development can provide.
After a long series of community meetings, the Gateway Commission has chosen two “locally preferred alternatives” as the routes to move forward into the Environmental Impact Study phase. Both connect Hudson to downtown St. Paul on routes that hug Interstate 94, mostly using the shoulder, MNDoT land, and Hudson Road.
Gone are any plans to take this route down East 7th Street. Gone, too, are likely business development and streetscape improvements that go along with dedicated routes like this. Most tragic is the lack of people-moving vision for the now-empty lots that 3M left behind – the Beacon Bluff development.
Haven’t even heard of this project? Blame overly targeted community engagement efforts and a lack of citizen debate. Oversimplified and highly dramatized write-ups appeared in local news. The Gateway Commission held poorly-publicized, highly-technical meetings, which drew two kinds of folks: on one side of the city limits were excited suburbanites looking to cash in on transit-oriented development and enjoy lower commute times; and on the other, nervous homeowners along the formerly proposed routes of White Bear Avenue and 7th Street.
After following this “locally preferred alternative” process, I believe the Hudson Road routes were chosen primarily for expediency and to win federal funding, rather than building comprehensive and lasting benefits for the East Side. Current federal criteria for awarding funds give higher scores for serving low-income and transit-dependent riders, as well as economic development potential. While any East 7th route would have met all three criteria, the Hudson Road route meets only the first two.
All told, there was a failure of leadership during Gateway “locally preferred alternative” citizen meetings, with elected officials shying away from transit-oriented development. Kathy Lantry seemed to focus her efforts on saving houses in Districts 2 and 5, rather than stimulating District 4’s local economy. I didn’t see County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. The lone visionary in the process has been County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who bravely asserted the importance of transit infrastructure for the future.
Overall, I’m concerned about the political ramifications of using Ramsey County, state, and federal money to fund a project that may fail to benefit East Siders. While the Met Council and City of St. Paul are considering plans to add 7th Street bus rapid transit or even streetcars, I’m concerned that the proximity of the Gateway line will have used up our East Side political capital and funding streams.
While it’s likely too late to change the route, many more decisions need to be made about station stops, streetscape im-provements, re-zoning around stations, and more. I certainly hope that we as a community can step up and make this transit line work for us, rather than insisting that it will never happen, or won’t happen for decades. I’ve heard plans to begin construction as early as 2018.
Visit http://thegatewaycorridor.com/html/alternativeanalysis.php for a full map.
Sherry Johnson is a 10-year resident of Dayton’s Bluff who has worked with Dayton’s Bluff Community Council and East Side Prosperity Campaign’s Engage Eastside initiative, which advocates for East Side transit users.