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This coverage is made possible by grants from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and The McKnight Foundation.

Southwest LRT could still be derailed

Preliminary engineering for a light-rail line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis has been approved, but funding hurdles remain.
Courtesy of Central Corridor Funders Collaborative
Preliminary engineering for a light-rail line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis has been approved, but funding hurdles remain.

Local officials were understandably elated earlier this month when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave its approval to start preliminary engineering on the region's third light-rail transit (LRT) line in the Southwest Corridor.

It signaled that the feds "have done their due diligence and deemed this project worthy of federal investment," as Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin put it.


As currently proposed, the 15-mile line would have 17 stations and run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, connecting with the Hiawatha LRT, Central LRT and Northstar commuter rail line near Target Field.  By 2030, it would carry about 30,000 riders per weekday, comparable to current Hiawatha ridership.

But the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County and their project partners have serious obstacles to overcome before they secure the 50-percent federal funding needed to build the $1.25 billion LRT line.

A challenging process
The FTA's process for planning and designing "New Starts" transit projects is enormously challenging all by itself. FTA officials at the regional and national level — as well as the multiple "project management oversight consultants" they employ — regularly pepper the rail project office with questions and concerns.

One question they already have raised: whether the Met Council has sufficient resources to operate another LRT line, given the state transit funding cuts of recent years.

The FTA process is "like crawling across ground glass," says McLaughlin, a veteran of the region's three previous rail projects.

Fortunately, the Southwest LRT project can draw upon the experience of Mark Fuhrmann, the Met Council's director of rail projects, who will oversee Southwest while also seeing Central through to its completion in 2014. Southwest will be the eighth New Starts project Fuhrmann has worked on in the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C.

Economic and political pressures
The larger problems confronting the project are economic and political. Faced with serious budget challenges, legislators both in Washington and St. Paul are looking intently for places to cuts spending rather than increase it. And state Republicans are openly hostile to funding transit, particularly rail.

At the federal level, President Barack Obama and Congress have committed to slashing discretionary domestic spending by at least $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years, with more cuts likely to follow. How these deficit-cutting efforts play out remains to be seen, but transit funding seems likely to take a hit.

The goal of the Met Council and Hennepin County is to begin final design of the Southwest line in 2013, win federal matching funds by 2014 and complete construction by late 2017 or early 2018.

However, before they can even apply for FTA approval to enter final design, they must have funding commitments for the local share of the cost: the Counties Transit Improvement Board through its five-county sales tax (30 percent), Hennepin County (10 percent) and the state of Minnesota (10 percent).

In the case of the state, that means securing $120 million in bonding authority from the Legislature by 2013. The Met Council recently submitted a request for $25 million in bonding authority in 2012 and indicated it would seek another $95 million in 2013.

Key minds will have to be changed
To be successful in 2012, project supporters will have to change a lot of minds in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, has vowed to stop Southwest LRT "dead in its tracks." And he is not alone.

Rep. Mike Beard
Rep. Mike Beard

Last session, project sponsors requested a modest $5 million in bonding from the Legislature and came away empty-handed.

Fuhrmann says Southwest has the support of the FTA, key funding partners and local communities in the corridor, and is one of only 12 New Starts transit projects in the nation to reach the preliminary-engineering stage of development.

"The FTA's blessing speaks volumes about the project's ability to improve mobility, connect people with jobs and promote livability, and do so in a manner that is efficient and cost-effective," he says.

Both McLaughlin and Bill Schreiber, a lobbyist for the county's transit board, are counting on members of the business community to help secure legislative support for the project — just as they did for the Hiawatha, Northstar and Central rail lines.

"The message of Southwest has to be about the number of businesses out there and the more than 240,000 jobs in the corridor," says McLaughlin. "The number of jobs is enormous. The growth potential is enormous. I think the business community is prepared to step forward to continue their advocacy for this line."

McLaughlin adds that if Republicans delay the project, some could pay the price in the 2012 election.

The Northstar example
"One of the things that changed with Northstar was that there was an election and some Republicans (who opposed the project) lost their seats," he says. "That was not trivial" in changing minds and ultimately winning legislative funding to advance the project.

However, Annette Meeks, CEO of the conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, unsuccessful GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010 and a former Met Council member, expects Republicans to stand their ground.

"Trains were popular in the 1800s and there are reasons they fell out of favor," Meeks says. "I don't see this Legislature saying 'we were wrong and we really ought to fund this.' Moreover, I don't know where all the money is coming from. I don't know what world these people are living in."

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Comments (9)

"I don't see this Legislature saying 'we were wrong". And therein lies the problem Annette, because last session they actually got EVERYTHING wrong.

Yes. Trains WERE popular in the 1800s and they DID fall out of favor. For a multitude of reasons (e.g., they were coal/steam powered way back then, trolleys replaced them, pure politics and back-scratching). Many of those reasons no longer apply. Well, except for the pure politics and back-scratching. Why should we listen to a failed politician, anyway?

I hope that residents along the line are paying attention to who opposes funding and work to get those people out of office. Mike Beard wants us to go back to the failed transportation policy of the '50's and '60's.

FTA approval to enter preliminary engineering is a big deal. No highway project has to go through anything near the level of scrutiny that a New Starts project has to endure. Highways get 80% of their funding from the feds, transit projects like New Starts get at best 50%. There are many reasons for these biases against transit, all of them political.

So it's a really, really big deal when a project actually makes it this far.

"I don't know what world these people are living in." We're in this world, Ms. Meeks- and we haven't seen you for such a long time!

The Cities of Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, their residents and the business community in the southwest suburbs (including United Health Care) are very supportive of the SW LRT and the economic engine that it will prompt both here and in Minneapolis. We live mostly in the political comfort zones of U.S. Representative Erik Paulsen and State legislators Divid Hann and Kirk Stensrud. Each one carries water for Tea Party operatives, but I suspect they will support any needed funding for this line.

LRT is SO expensive!! Why not construct 4-5 lanes of blacktop on the dedicated railbeds and run electric/hybrid buses (no cars allowed)on the route, sort of like the dedicated busway between the U of M and the State Fairgrounds.

Buses may not be as "cool" as shiny new train cars but I would imagine we could move just as many people from Point A to Point B for a lot less money. In addition, the buses could be used elsewhere, as well.

Please explain to me why this is not superior to the LRT concept.

A newbie and resident of northwest Minneapolis, I’ve never been to Shakopee. What’s the basis for Mr. Beard’s “…dead in its tracks” stand? Does he own an auto dealership? A concrete or asphalt company? Everywhere it’s been built of which I’m aware in the country, light rail has exceeded ridership expectations, moving many thousands of people to and from work and shopping at reasonable cost and convenience.

In both the other metro areas where I’ve lived – St. Louis and Denver – light rail has spurred economic growth, lessened automotive pollution, promoted denser and more efficient housing, and otherwise been far more of a benefit than a burden to the area it serves. Denver is in the midst of a huge, multi-line transit project, only temporarily delayed by the current economic doldrums.

Republican opposition to transit in general reflects an attitude that is not only hostile to urban areas, where most of Minnesota’s (and America’s) population lives, it’s effectively hostile to business – a curious position to take for a political party that’s typically in the back pocket of business interests.

As for Ms. Meeks’ remarks, and speaking as a former planning commissioner, I’d say David Greene is right on target in commenting that “There are many reasons for these biases against transit, all of them political.” Those reasons have nothing to do with moving large numbers of people efficiently and relatively pleasantly from home to work to school to recreation and shopping. Ideology is rarely about the practicalities of daily life.

Morning and evening rush hours in the Twin Cities metro are not substantially different from the unpleasantness they inflict on commuters in many other parts of the country, including those metro areas where I used to live. Among the most trenchant comments I’ve heard in this context came from the north end of Colorado’s Front Range, at a public meeting to consider the likelihood of a North Star-like commuter line running from Cheyenne or Fort Collins south to Denver, through Colorado Springs to Pueblo. An elderly woman, no longer able to make the 150-mile round trip between Fort Collins and Denver, but aware of the legislative bias against transit, lamented that “We’re three Governors away from a usable commuter rail line!!”

I hope that’s not the case here with the Southwest Line.

@David

Here are two big reasons LRT is favored over buses in appropriate corridors.

1. For moving large numbers of people, nothing beats LRT in operating cost. Running enough buses to serve the same number of people involves very expensive fuel, maintenance and operator costs. Yes, LRT has higher initial capital costs but the operating costs are substantially lower.

For example, a typical bus can be pushed to about 12 years of service and then needs replacement. There are still TCRT PCC streetcars operating out there in the world, over 50 years after we shut down our system and those vehicles had a good 10 years of service already in them at the time they moved to other places.

2. For every dollar put into LRT capital cost, the return on investment in the form of economic development has been $3-$4 fairly consistently around the country. If we spend $1 billion on an LRT line we can conservatively expect about $3 billion in economic activity along the line. No other transportation mode comes close to producing that kind of economic jolt.

Note that I said, "in appropriate corridors," above. Not every line should be LRT and that's part of the New Starts evaluation process. It looks like SW LRT has passed those criteria and is seen as an appropriate use of the technology by many different people and organizations.

Seems that the planning for the SWT was upstaged by the Northstar, evidently for cosmetic or political reasons?.The SWT is a more practical and more concrete in its existence then the "Train to St.Cloud" that was diluted to the rural basket of Big Lake.Typical designing flaw in the Twin Cities which does not serve the public reservoir of concerns. The Southwest is what a LRT unit of transportation can achieve when its satisfies many curriculums.The Northstar serves very little,and is a commuter rail system, which has none of the magnitude it should extend itself for.Alas the City is trying to play catch-up to other Metropolitan areas, and ..its a long haul now!. BRT ? the BRT they have existing down the 35W is at most a dalliance of trying to give a audience to BRT fans .the extra cost of LRT is still a better deal ,because it is separate from mainline traffic.and the other 10-20 things I can name to even more advantageous.Though the SWT will probably be shelved..due to the economy.