It looks like commuters between Hastings and St. Paul may be riding buses, not trains, according to the latest study of the Red Rock Corridor.
The updated alternatives analysis, completed this year and recently posted for public comment, examined the needs of commuters along the 30-mile transitway and the expected costs of various transit options.
A 2007 analysis identified commuter rail as a front-runner for the area, based on projected ridership numbers and hope of a high-speed rail line from Chicago that might connect to the Twin Cities via Red Rock Corridor.
But there have been a lot of changes since the last study, including recent ridership data from the Northstar commuter rail and a recent East Metro Rail Capacity Study, which indicated rail lines in the corridor were already constrained.
With new data in hand, planners now say bus rapid transit is the way to go for the Red Rock Corridor. And with a capital cost of about $45 million, it's significantly cheaper than the $584 million commuter rail option.
The updated alternatives analysis is available for public comment, and there will be a public hearing Jan. 23. For more information, go to redrockrail.org.
Talk of a commuter rail in the Red Rock Corridor began around the same time as planning for the Northstar line between Big Lake and Minneapolis. Red Rock was eyed as a potential second commuter line, but Northstar, which opened in 2009, remains the state's only commuter rail service, and the ridership numbers have been sluggish. The line currently averages about 2,700 weekday rides, not quite hitting the 3,400 daily rides that officials had hoped for by the one-year mark, and remains heavily subsidized.
By comparison, the latest Red Rock Corridor analysis projects 1,640 daily rides for commuter rail or 2,420 daily rides for bus rapid transit. The annual operating costs for a commuter rail line would be about $5.7 million, versus $3.8 million for BRT.
After the 2007 Red Rock study, efforts were taken to develop the Red Rock Corridor with an eye to future commuter rail service. Three express bus lines now shuttle commuters between Hastings and St. Paul/Minneapolis, and transit stations are being built.
Though ridership numbers look unlikely to support a commuter rail — for now — a transit alternative is definitely needed for the corridor, according to the study.
"The Metropolitan Council projects that by 2030, nearly the entire length of (U.S.) 61 in the Red Rock Corridor will be congested and operating at a Level of Service (LOS) F during the morning and evening commute periods," the updated study said. "As population and employment increase, demand for transportation increases and congestion will only get worse unless a transit solution is pursued."
The latest study, which also considered commuters from Red Wing and Prairie Island, looked at four possible options: no build (current conditions), express bus, BRT and commuter rail.
BRT was identified as the preferred option because it has the highest projected ridership numbers, high reliability, improved travel time (compared with current options), and lower construction costs than rail.
Looking forward, the study recommends that the Red Rock Corridor Commission work to increase daily trips for existing bus services; make and advocate for transit and mobility improvements, like bike trails, along the corridor; continue to seek funding sources; and monitor commuter needs.
A citizen advisory committee has been formed to help guide the corridor development process, and anyone who lives or works along the corridor is encouraged to participate.
The upcoming public hearing will be at 4 p.m. Jan. 23 at Cottage Grove City Hall, 8020 80th St. S.
Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at 651-228-5162. Follow her at twitter.com/LizMohr.
Copyright 2013 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.