Southwest LRT: ‘We Can’t Wait’ — but we will

Metropolitan Council
The proposed Southwest LRT would become the Twin Cities' third commuter train line, joining the Hiawatha and Central Corridor LRTs.

The White House has announced that, as part of President Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the Southwest Light Rail would be one of two projects (the other is in Cleveland) to be “expedited to put Americans to work building a 21st century infrastructure.” 

“It is very rewarding and encouraging that the project has the support at the very highest levels, including the White House, the Federal Transit Administration and the governor’s office, which recently approved $2 million in DEED grants.” So declared Sue Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council.

As you no doubt know, the proposed Southwest LRT would become the Twin Cities’ third commuter train line, joining the Hiawatha and Central Corridor LRTs. The plan has it extending from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis west to Hopkins and then south to Eden Prairie. 

To me, it sounded as though the president was throwing some boodle our way to ensure that Minnesota stays blue on Nov. 6. And while I don’t necessarily approve of boodle-throwing, if it’s going to be thrown, we should get some.

So I was excited. I envisioned armies of newly hired hard-hats converging on the suburbs to build a public work that would, if the Metropolitan Council is to be believed, reduce traffic congestion in a fast-growing part of the region. And much of the $1.25 billion needed to build it would end up in the pockets of workers. They would spend the dough, enriching local businesses, and we would all live happily ever after. 

Unfortunately, there is less here than meets the eye.

Frustration with House

The “We Can’t Wait” program grew out of the president’s frustration with the House of Representatives’ inability (or unwillingness) last year to pass a $447 million jobs bill that included big bucks for infrastructure projects. A tax increase was needed to fund it, and that was a no-no for Republicans. So in the past year or so, the White House has been rolling out a batch of executive orders that would bypass Congress and presumably goose the economy. 

A couple of the efforts have been pretty grand. One removed the obstacles facing underwater homeowners in refinancing their mortgages, and another lowered mandatory payments on student-loan debts. And the U.S. Department of Transportation somehow managed to find $470 million in “unobligated earmarks” — unspent set-asides that were made before Congress banned them. So by executive order, states are allowed to use their share as they wish. (Minnesota stands to receive $11.2 million.)

But a lot of the “We Can’t Wait” programs are small potatoes. And, alas, the expediting of the Southwest LRT is, well, a tater tot.

The White House announcement, after itemizing the benefits of the new transit line — it would improve access to employment centers, enhance travel speeds and connect the suburbs to the State Capitol — almost slides by the real message, to wit: The “can’t wait initiative” will involve using “an enhanced coordination process” and cut several months off the project “by aligning multiple permit and review processes to work concurrently instead of sequentially.”

What does all this blather mean? Well, according to Susan Hendrick, a U.S. Department of Transportation deputy press secretary: “USDOT and other Federal agencies are working together as never before to cut red tape to speed up the time it takes to review and permit these important infrastructure projects.” 

It’s not exactly a foregone conclusion that permitting and reviews slow down a project. David Goldberg of Transportation for America argues that the efficiencies created by streamlining accelerated by a full year the approval process for the replacement of New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge.

But James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says that the bigger problem is inadequate funding. Prying the money out of Congress takes so long that some regions have decided to forego it just so they can launch their projects  “Shaving a couple of months off for permitting  activities in a 10-year process that itself must depend on funding from Congress means that they are only messing around the edges of the problem.”   

Money first

And where is that cash? That’s what Joe Gimse, chair of the Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee (R-Willmar), wants to know. “Executive orders are OK as long as a check is attached,” he says. “My approach is that the feds should allocate the money first.” Minnesota taxpayers, he adds, shouldn’t have to be the ones to front the dough.

Actually, we have. A previous Legislature, Hennepin County and the Counties Transit Improvement board have already shoveled $47 million into the project.

Last year, the Federal Transit Administration approved the Southwest LRT for entry into a stage called “preliminary engineering.” (It was one of 10 out of 100 proposals to qualify.) But the Legislature refused to grant $25 million in bonding that was needed — even though the Met Council warned that delaying a year would add $40 million to the cost of the entire project. Gov. Mark Dayton had $47.5 million in DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) grants to dole out but gave only $2 million to the Southwest LRT. (The lion’s share, some $25 million, went to St. Paul for its minor league baseball stadium.)

In point of fact, unless Minnesotans want to foot the entire bill for the Soutwest LRT themselves, the project has to pass an environmental review before we’ll find the check — this case, for $625 million — in the mail. So any streamlining has to be a good thing. If all goes well, says Laura Baenen, Southwest LRT communications manager, the project could wade through all the approvals by November 2014. And the line could start operating in 2018.

It looks as though we will still be doing a lot of waiting.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Chad Laughlin on 10/02/2012 - 10:52 am.

    I’ve yet to find the actual Eden Prairie, is it a state of mind

    “Gov. Mark Dayton had
    $47.5 million in DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) grants to dole out but gave only $2 million to the Southwest LRT. (The lion’s share, some $25 million, went to St. Paul for its minor league baseball stadium.)” Yes dastardly St. Paul screwing up everything?? Yet no mention of the much larger stadium whose owners wanted to put in the East metro until the state insisted they take the money to downtown mpls. Honestly. Eventually the 4-1 (or greater- 4th rail line in the west vs 1 in the east, highways are even more disproportionate) state investment in the West metro vs the East (which doesn’t yield the same ratio back in terms of population or economic output west vs east) has to be explored. I’m not saying 50/50 even steven, but even doling out investment to each side of the metro based on gdp ratio for the respective counties (Hennepin- Ramsey) would be more 3/5ths to 2/5ths, and would be potentially transformative for the East metro. And that’s just Ramsey county (1/3rd the size of Hennepin in land area) the East metro is considerably more fragmented, not having a “super county” like Hennepin to organize at the state investment checkout line is as much a reason as any in how the results of the competition between the two sides of the metro. But never any mention of this, just snarky little jabs at the East metro when we get any investment.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/03/2012 - 01:53 pm.

      Hmm…

      I agree that the east metro needs more investment but I really have to disagree with your analysis here.

      Yes, Hennepin county is large and yes, Hennepin county is wealthy but Hennepin county also has public officials who have worked really hard to build the transit system over the last three decades. That means not only devoting staff resources to studies and designs but also the ground-pounding work of supporting the bus system through advocacy and running commuter lines to build ridership until MetroTransit could take over.

      Anoka county has also been a big player in transit. I don’t think there is any local body in the east metro that has worked nearly as hard for transit. Individuals, yes, but take Washington and Dakota counties as examples. They were both pretty anti-transit for a long time. Even now, Washington seems to be slipping back into that mode. The money flows to where it’s requested and wanted.

      As for the football stadium, Arden Hills was about the worst place it could go. I’d have no problem putting it in downtown St. Paul. But way out in the exurbs where no transit runs and where we’d need to make huge investments in unsustainable freeway expansion? No way. That was a severe miscalculation by Ramsey county officials.

      Not everything is a conspiracy against the east metro. One has to take action to build power.

  2. Submitted by Steven Prince on 10/02/2012 - 10:56 am.

    I think this map is years old, showing three different alignments that were considered in Minneapolis. There is no plan to build LRT along the lines shown in orange or blue (or the green line east of 35W).

    HEre is a map from the Metro Council showing the planned route: http://www.metrocouncil.org/transportation/SW/SWLRTmap600.png

  3. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 10/02/2012 - 10:58 am.

    Differences between the rail types are important

    Good summary, but it’s important to note that light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, streetcars, etc are all different. That gets lost on Minnesotans a lot because we’re not quite as experienced with rail.

    SWLRT (while in many ways planned like a commuter rail line, unfortunately) is light rail, which is different from commuter rail, like the Northstar Line. Commuter rail runs far less often and is geared towards rush hour commuting, and in low density metro area like Minneapolis, is generally a waste of money thrown at suburban areas to make them feel included.

    The difference is important. Treating them interchangably lets Republicans get away with mischaracterizing them when reaching out to “low information voters”. Northstar was built for a little under half the cost of the Hiawatha Line but carries less than a tenth of the riders, and is far, far less cost-efficient. Hiawatha’s operating costs are lower than busses, generally.

    “The light rail out to Big Lake runs at a $17/per rider subsidy, so let’s not build the light rail to Eden Prairie!” This statement is false, because they’re not the same thing, but if we call them the same thing it’s easy to confuse the two.

  4. Submitted by Rich Crose on 10/03/2012 - 09:04 am.

    Privatize Profits but Socialize Costs

    The Street Car lines in the Twin Cities were built by private companies who needed to get customers to their businesses –mainly selling land that was inaccessible by roads and people without cars.

    The new paradigm in our country today is to privatize profits but socialize costs. The biggest benefactors of a SW light rail will be businesses yet they are the biggest supporters of the Tea Party, no new taxes, corporations shouldn’t pay taxes movement.

    Seems like corporate welfare to me –and this is the Democratic Party!

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 10/03/2012 - 07:59 pm.

    In the eye of the reporter

    The reporter imagines something (construction) that anyone who understands how these projects unfold knows has to follow other phases (engineering, community involvement, design, etc.) and concludes there’s less here than meets the eye?

    Something indeed is wanting. But why should the fed fund something our GOP-majority legislature is reluctant to support?

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