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Following pushback from Maplewood officials and other critics, an alternative route for bus rapid transit on the Purple Line has emerged that calls for buses to travel on White Bear Avenue rather than along the northern stretch of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

Many cyclists and pedestrians fear public transit would sully the popular green space of the Vento Trail and create a safety hazard. According to transit planners, it's too early to say what the final decision will be regarding the route, but clearly part of White Bear Avenue is in play. Under that scenario, a lane of traffic in each direction would become a dedicated bus lane in Maplewood.

"It's a win-win in many ways" but more data is needed, including estimates of the cost and potential ridership, said Nick Thompson, Metro Transit's deputy general manager of capital projects, at a Purple Line meeting last week. The current price tag for the line, which begins service at Union Depot, is $475 million, but that could change following more study.

The White Bear Avenue alternative has been pushed by officials with Ramsey County, which will likely pay half the cost to build the line, along with the Federal Transit Administration.

In a March 22 letter, Ramsey County commissioners wrote that they prefer to study White Bear Avenue as an alternative and no longer want to provide documents to federal funders supporting the Vento Trail option. The letter was signed by Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo, Regional Railroad Authority Chair Rafael Ortega and longtime Purple Line supporter Victoria Reinhardt, whose district includes Maplewood.

"Ramsey County believes it's critically important to analyze how transit use has changed since the pandemic started," county spokeswoman Rose Lindsay said. Others agree.

"The need for transit has changed significantly since COVID and has resulted in changes in our workstyle, lifestyles and transit needs," said Tim David of the No Rush Line Coalition, which has been critical of the Purple Line. "We need greater innovation to provide effective transit in our community."

That includes transit service that uses existing roads, smaller buses and flexible routes to accommodate changing ridership needs, David said, noting the White Bear Avenue alternative is "a much better option."

The new plan calls for the line to travel on White Bear Avenue from Maryland Avenue in St. Paul to the Maplewood Mall Transit Center, a possible terminus which is slated for a $5 million renovation to make way for the Purple Line, according to Metro Transit documents. From Maryland Avenue to Arcade Street, buses would continue to share the Vento Trail, which was purchased by Ramsey County in the 1990s for transit use.

Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams said the proximity of White Bear Avenue to homes and businesses makes it an attractive route for workers, employers and residents. It has strong support from nearby health care providers, including HealthPartners' Maplewood Clinic and M Health Fairview St. John's Hospital.

"It makes perfect sense to me," Abrams said.

Originally called the Rush Line, the project has shape-shifted over the past 30 years. It was envisioned in the late 1990s as a rail line between Hinckley and St. Paul through Rush City. The line's northern endpoint was pared to downtown White Bear Lake by 2017, when the route was formally adopted.

But last year, the city of White Bear Lake adopted a resolution asking the Metropolitan Council, which is building the line, to remove it from the project. That prompted a new study contemplating the terminus at the Maplewood Mall Transit Center, at Vadnais Heights or at Century College, which straddles the White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi city lines.

However, Metro Transit officials recently informed Century College President Angelia Millender that ending the line there would disqualify it from federal funding, according to a Feb. 28 email she sent to faculty and staff. "I share our community's deep disappointment in this outcome," Millender wrote.

The Maplewood City Council added to the fluctuating fortunes of the Purple Line last fall, when it voted to withdraw support until more information was known about post-COVID ridership patterns and additional input was gleaned from the community. That led to a series of community meetings beginning in February.

At the final meeting of the Purple Line engagement group last week, Maplewood officials seemed ecstatic over the possibility of a new route.

"I feel like it's Christmas, New Year's Eve, my birthday and the Fourth of July rolled into one," Abrams said. "We need to bring transit to the east metro. This is common sense."

Correction: A previous version of this story should have identified the speaker of the quote in the last paragraph as Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams.