Met Council announces METRO Purple Line clears environmental hurdle

Oct. 15, 2021
Achievement of this major milestone helps to clear the way for the transfer of the project from Ramsey County to the Metropolitan Council in late 2021 or early 2022.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) granted environmental clearance for the METRO Purple Line, a 15-mile bus rapid transit project planned to start service to the northeast, connecting Saint Paul, Maplewood, White Bear Township, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Lake, Minn.

Achievement of this major milestone helps to clear the way for the transfer of the project from Ramsey County to the Metropolitan Council (Met Council) in late 2021 or early 2022.

This month, the FTA issued a favorable environmental decision based on the project’s Environmental Assessment. The Finding of No Significant Impact document is the final stage of the environmental review process for the Purple Line project under the National Environmental Policy Act. In addition, Ramsey County has issued a Findings of Fact and Conclusions document to comply with the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act.

Corridor cities, residents weighed in on preliminary design plans

Ramsey County has been in charge of planning the project until now. In 2017, the corridor communities endorsed the selection and recommendation of the locally preferred alternative, with the Met Council subsequently adopting it into the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan.

Over the past three years, county project staff have taken in thousands of comments from the community, connecting with more than 3,400 people at events, pop-up meetings, open houses, virtual events, and a variety of other efforts. In 2020, the cities of Saint Paul, White Bear Lake, Vadnais Heights, and Maplewood passed resolutions of support for the project’s preliminary design plans.

Purple Line will advance equity, access to jobs

As part of the regional METRO system, the Purple Line will connect people to jobs, housing, services and key destinations such as Union Depot and downtown Saint Paul, Regions Hospital, Hmong Village, Phalen Regional Park, St. John’s Hospital, Maplewood Mall and downtown White Bear Lake.

“The Purple Line is a major investment in equity and mobility for this part of the metro region,” said Met Council Member Susan Vento. “Nationwide, 20 percent of households at or below the federal poverty line lack access to a car. The percentages of low-income African American and Latino households without a car are even higher at 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Public transportation allows these families to meet their daily needs."

“The Purple Line will be a critical connector for residents, workers and businesses,” added Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. “We’re pleased by the progress this project is making to advance equity and access to jobs in Ramsey County by providing another transportation option in areas that are underserved by transit. Successful completion of the federal environmental process is a testament to the careful and collaborative planning work undertaken since the environmental phase began in 2018.”

Met Council prepared for handoff

In August and September, the Met Council took several steps to prepare for taking over the project. One was approving a capital grant agreement under which Ramsey County will pay the Met Council $39.9 million for agency and consultant staff support over the next two years to get to 100 percent design, begin purchasing right of way and for related project management services. Ramsey County approved the agreement on Oct. 5.

Another step was approval of cooperation and master funding agreements with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to support the project, since some of their technical and professional staff will work on the project. The line includes a segment along Highway 61 in White Bear Lake.

On Oct. 12, the Met Council issued a request for proposals for engineering and project management consultant services for the project. This winter the Met Council anticipates that the project will be accepted into the federal Capital Investment Grant Program, which would provide approximately half of the capital funds for the project.

METRO Purple Line scheduled to open in 2026

As currently designed, the line has 21 stations. It will run largely along Robert Street and Phalen Boulevard in Saint Paul, then join Ramsey County rail right-of-way now occupied by the Bruce Vento Regional Trail, which terminates at the border of White Bear Lake and Maplewood near Highway 61. The right-of-way has enough room to fit the trail, the bus line and other elements such as landscaping. From there, the line will continue into downtown White Bear Lake on Highway 61.

Capital funding for the $457 million to $474 million bus rapid transit project will come from a combination of county and federal funds. Based on the project’s estimated cost and ridership, financial plan, environmental and congestion relief benefits and impacts on land use and economic development, the Purple Line is expected to qualify for federal funding and be competitive with other projects around the country for funding.

The project’s current timeline anticipates construction will begin in 2024 and the bus rapid transit line would start operations in late 2026.

“The transition from Rush Line to Purple Line represents years of work, and we’re hopeful that we will continue moving forward on schedule to deliver fast, frequent service to residents between White Bear Lake and Saint Paul,” said Craig Lamothe, Metro Transit project manager. “We appreciate Ramsey County’s work on the project and look forward to taking the next steps that will bring us to opening day.”