Documents: The behind-the-scenes battle to stop a bus line to White Bear Lake

By Mike Kaszuba

By February of this year, the writing was on the wall in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

The City Council, after a game-changing election three months before, now had the votes to try to stop a long-discussed rapid bus line that would connect downtown Saint Paul to the Ramsey County suburb.

The vote would be a rare rebuke to a public transportation initiative in the Twin Cities and, according to documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, a sign that attitudes toward mass transit were becoming increasingly polarized.

The documents also illustrated how the project’s supporters were slow to react to the sudden wave of criticism, and a social media campaign that cast them as out of touch with their own constituents.

When the City Council – now with one new key member – moved toward a vote on the project in early March, advocates for the 15-mile-long rapid bus line hurried to enlist former city officials in an attempt to speak out in favor of the project.

“Anne has been sharing her thoughts with the council members and the current mayor,” Lindy Crawford, White Bear Lake’s city manager, said of Anne Kane, the city’s former community development director. “I know she plans to continue that now that she’s ‘just’ a constituent.

“I am not sure what Ellen [Hiniker, the city’s former city manager] would say/if she would speak up at this point,” Crawford wrote in a mid-February email.

In contrast, the campaign highlighted the influence of Bill Walsh, a City Council member in White Bear Lake who helped lead the opposition to the project and who was also a top official at the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based conservative policy group known for its pointed political views.

Earlier this year, the Center of the American Experiment had called another Twin Cities transportation endeavor, the Southwest Light Rail project, a “boondoggle” and awarded it the organization’s “inaugural Golden Turkey Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Though a formal vote by the City Council opposing the project was only advisory – cities could not veto the route of a rapid bus line — the opposition sent a message that supporters of the project could not ignore.

Council, community members divided over bus project

One city official, Mike Amundsen, a White Bear Lake planning commission member, pleaded with City Council member Steven Engstran in a February 11 email. White Bear Lake’s “reputation is on the line. [Are] we putting up walls and saying “Stay Out’ or are we a community that wants to embrace people from all walks of life[?]” Amundsen wrote.

But Leigh Thiel, a community activist and project critic, was blunt.

“You were elected to be a voice to those people [who oppose the project],” Thiel wrote to the City Council on March 6, two days before the decisive vote. “I have heard the dissenters way more than I have heard voices advocating for [it].

“I firmly believe that this has been pushed forward by people who want to have an ‘accomplishment’ on their resume,” instead of focusing on the negative impact on White Bear Lake, Thiel added.

Walsh, who works as the director of marketing and communications at the Center of The American Experiment, wrote a story for that organization afterward entitled “The Marketfest Rebellion” that described the successful effort to keep the project out of White Bear Lake.

“White Bear residents were challenging me not just to oppose the project, but to do something about it,” Walsh wrote. “Feedback in my council emails and conversations ran 9-1 against the line.”

“Response to the booth at Marketfest [a community event in White Bear Lake] was overwhelming,” he added. “The No Rush Line Coalition had six volunteers manning the booth with 150-200 people signing the petition against the line each of the four nights they were there. In addition to the petition, they sent 800 postcards to elected officials voicing opposition to the project.”

In addition to serving on the City Council in White Bear Lake, Walsh has had several political roles in Minnesota – many of them through the state Republican Party, including as the communications director for two state agencies under Governor Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor and Republican presidential candidate.

In comments to PRM, Walsh said that the Center of the American Experiment did not encourage him to lead the drive to oppose the project, and said his opposition predated his joining the organization in November of 2020. He said the Center of the American Experiment did not specifically oppose the project, but added that “we award a Golden Turkey award for silly spending annually and several of the winners have been transportation projects.”

Walsh added that he did work closely with the No Rush Line Coalition – a citizen group that opposed the project – and also worked to elect City Council members in White Bear Lake who opposed the rapid bus line.

“I attended several of their meetings and kept in close contact with them about actions the council was taking regarding the project,” Walsh said of the No Rush Line Coalition. “We coordinated a public meeting together where 200 people showed up, mostly opposed to Rush Line.”

Walsh said his colleagues on the City Council generally “know where I work. It’s not a secret.”

As the opposition to the project became more vocal, Victoria Reinhardt was fine-tuning her own opinion article in support of the Rush Line project, whose name was changed in January to the Purple Line. Reinhardt is a longtime Ramsey County Commission member whose website features her favorite recipes, including one for Special K bars and another for cake and almond frosting. The website also had a photo of her standing alongside Nancy Pelosi, the high-profile Democrat and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“During the past few months, the discourse regarding the Purple Line here in White Bear Lake has started to sound like the hyper-partisan fights we see in Washington, D.C.,” Reinhardt wrote in a draft of her opinion article in November, 2021. She composed the article just weeks after White Bear Lake elected a City Council with enough votes to oppose the project. “This does not reflect our community values and we can do better,” Reinhardt wrote.

She added: “Those of us who have worked on this project for many years welcome feedback. But let’s be sure that we’re all working from actual, documented facts. If you have questions, ask them, rather than just accepting the half-truths and falsehoods often spread through social media.”

Background on the Purple Line

Nearly 20 years after the Twin Cities opened its first light rail line, the $475 million rapid bus Purple Line was considered another way to bring mass transit to the metro area’s far-flung suburbs. The route would start at Union Depot in downtown Saint Paul, feature 21 stops, and weave through Maplewood before ending in White Bear Lake, a suburb with roughly 24,000 residents.

White Bear Lake’s official website states that “today the city’s [residents] enjoy the advantages of being part of a major metropolitan area while residing in a community that has maintained its small home-town appeal.”

Project supporters argued that the Purple Line was needed because of simple math regarding population and traffic congestion: the Twin Cities is projected to increase by more than 817,000 people between 2020 and 2050, pushing the overall population to 4 million.

The project would be completed in 2026. The Purple Line has been spearheaded locally by Ramsey County and the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency whose origins date to the 1960s – and whose work has been criticized by the Center of the American Experiment. The Met Council’s members are not elected, but appointed by Minnesota’s governor. The Purple Line’s construction cost would be shared by the federal government and Ramsey County.

Purple Line disputes seen in city correspondence

“My question is[,] how can five buses an hour ‘ruin’ White Bear Lake?” council member Dan Jones asked in a February 2022 email to White Bear Lake’s city manager. “The Purple Line has been in [the] planning stage for well over 20 years – [is] the truth [people] don’t pay attention or haven’t cared?”

That same month, Jones had even stronger words regarding the project’s critics.

“They are afraid of change, the unknown, and, in my opinion – ‘those people’,” he wrote in a February 12 email, referring to fears the buses would bring crime to White Bear Lake. “I’m not going down without a fight and if I can shame them [with] common sense I will do so.”

But the critics, now newly invigorated by the council elections in White Bear Lake, said the project had moved ahead through a series of small decisions – and not by a single, yes-or-no vote in the city. They also argued that the pandemic had drastically altered the workplace, and that the move to working remotely called into question whether commuters needed to ride buses to downtown offices in large numbers anymore.

Concerns over potential increases in crime were raised in several City Council constituent emails.

“In the past two years, I have only been downtown Minneapolis once, out of fear for my safety,” Dave and Valerie Zachor wrote in an email to the City Council and mayor on March 5 – three days before the City Council voted against having the Purple Line in White Bear Lake. “Guys would turn on us out of nowhere and bang on our [car] window and demand money.”

White Bear Lake “can still be serviced by an occasional bus if you really think it is necessary,” the couple added. “Why do you continue to disregard the input from this community?”

In the days after he lost his re-election bid in November 2021, City Council member Doug Biehn – a former Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office official – responded to the worries about crime. “I have seen criminals do some stupid things, but it would be ironic to expect criminals to travel to White Bear Lake to commit a crime and to wait for an electric bus to escape,” he said.

Biehn lost his bid for re-election to Heidi Hughes, who beat Biehn by 72 votes, and was firmly against the Purple Line.

“Voting matters and who we elect and why has consequences,” Hughes wrote in comments she forwarded in an email to White Bear Lake’s city clerk on February 22. “And I’m the physical consequence. I’m sitting here because citizens said NO. They’ve been saying NO for years and no one has listened.”

“Cheap listening sessions and surveys which don’t allow people to simply say NO, don’t count,” Hughes, who moved to White Bear Lake in 2009, wrote.

“I’m not against transit,” added Hughes, who worked for the late Jennifer Dunn, a former Republican member of Congress from the state of Washington. “I’m against this plan.”

Instead of going through downtown White Bear Lake, Hughes instead said she wanted the Purple Line to go a few miles to the west, along Interstate 35E.

But, according to emails, Hughes quickly worried that her alternative meant that the bus line would still go through the suburb. “OK, so since I went on record and said I would like it on 35E, would that [still] be in [White Bear Lake]? Hm. What have I done to myself[?]” she wrote in a February 25 email to Crawford, the new city manager.

“Oy vey – that’s a good point,” Crawford replied minutes later. “You could argue you meant ON 35 without stops in city limits. Meaning traveling under the 35 overpass, not getting off the exit ramps.”

Purple Line voted down

Three weeks after the November 2021 election, Walsh initially attempted to push for a vote on the Purple Line even before the new City Council was sworn in. But Walsh’s attempt to call for a “pause” on the project led to a 2-to-2 vote on the City Council, causing his motion to fail.

In the days leading up to the vote, emails obtained by PRM showed city officials struggled with how to move forward. “Bill [Walsh] is not willing to take out the word ‘pause’ in the resolution,” Hiniker, the then-city manager, wrote in a November 19, 2021 email.

Walsh, however, was successful four months later — but even that vote was close. According to city emails, just days before the vote, Walsh was trying to reach City Council member Engstran, whose vote would be pivotal. “I know the mayor is also trying to reach [Engstran],” White Bear Lake’s city manager wrote to Walsh on March 1. “While I don’t know the reason for no response, it could be because he is speaking with the Mayor and therefore can’t talk to you due to the Open Meeting Law.”

A week later, Walsh, Hughes, and Engstran provided the needed three votes to pass a City Council resolution formally opposing the project.

proposed resolution for the pivotal City Council meeting in March noted that “the few votes the City Council [had previously] taken on the Project have narrowly passed on a 3/2 vote.”

But the resolution then added that the City Council, which now had the votes to oppose the project, “is in the best position to understand the needs of its residents and the potential impacts on the community from a major transportation project.”

The No Rush Line Coalition – the group took its name from the project’s original name – meanwhile played a pivotal role in rallying public opinion against the rapid bus line. The group’s website urged citizens to keep White Bear Lake “quiet & welcoming” and cast the project as “Unwanted, Unneeded, Unaffordable & Disastrous!”

The website also asked: “Why has there been virtually no discussion of the main stream media electronic and print media stories on rampant crime on mass transit in the Twin Cities and the difficulties of hiring and maintaining drivers for already existing routes?”

The group’s website was also critical of the Met Council, and featured passages from an article written by Katherine Kersten, who is now a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.

“The American dream is about striving for a better life through economic growth, not redistribution of wealth,” the website stated, quoting Kersten. “Regionalists’ Orwellian appeals to ‘equity’ and ‘sustainability’ are hostile to our cherished traditions of individual liberty, personal responsibility and local self-government.”

“Thank you Katherine!” the website added.

In June – three months after the Walsh-led vote to formally oppose the project – a key Met Council committee decided not to route the Purple Line into downtown White Bear Lake.

And in October — seven months after White Bear Lake’s vote — the Maplewood City Council voted to take more time to study the Purple Line, which is scheduled to stop near Maplewood Mall. While she said that the City Council “is in favor of transit,” Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams added that “we have some struggles with the Purple Line.”