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Delay on Southwest Light Rail is not cost-free; it’s time to come together

Courtesy of Metro Transit
It's no accident that President Obama recently stood at Union Depot — the hub of the Central Corridor — to announce new federal investments in transportation that will provide jobs and promote economic opportunity.

The Southwest Light Rail line is an audacious idea. It dares to connect downtown, north Minneapolis, and western suburbs like Eden Prairie.  

Rep. Keith Ellison

The Southwest line will connect residents who need jobs to job opportunities. It will whisk suburban residents to work or recreation in downtown Minneapolis quickly and safely.  More than that, residents will be able to connect with other lines that can take them to downtown St. Paul or to Big Lake. 

Southwest Light Rail promises to be awesome, but there’s one problem: We can’t reach agreement on how to handle the freight rail currently running through the Kenilworth corridor.  

The clock is ticking. The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) passed a resolution on Feb. 19 to pull its 30 percent funding share from the project on June 30, 2014, unless there’s an agreement in place.  That’s about three months from now.

Without the CTIB funding, the Southwest line is history.

Opportunities too important to lose

We cannot afford to let the clock run out. The entire metro region would lose the chance to add thousands of needed construction jobs; we would lose millions in added housing and commerce; and we would lose the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and congestion.  

We face significant income gaps between communities in our region. If we are serious about promoting equity, we need a train line that will connect folks who need jobs to the places where jobs are available.

As with any difficult policy question, all concerned have a legitimate basis for their positions. Unfortunately, there is no option that will please everyone. Some will have misgivings. I don’t envy local leaders who are charged with making these decisions. But delay is not cost-free. 

Half of the funding for the project will come from the federal government. I have fought hard to expand transit funding to put people to work building vital projects nationwide, as the president called for when he visited Minnesota recently. However, with the current Congress, transportation funding is flat or declining.  

Competing with Denver, Seattle and others

In a time of gridlock and limited public budgets, we are competing for the same federal dollars with regions like Denver, Seattle and Dallas, which all have rail lines at the same stage as Southwest Light Rail. Federal funding is not a guarantee, and we cannot afford to fall behind or lose out to other sections of the country.  

Minnesotans directly impacted by the project must have their views carefully considered and we must make every attempt to mitigate the impacts of the project. I support the studies requested by the governor and additional opportunities for public comment and engagement. But we should also hear the needs of the broader community. Northside residents, suffering some of the worst unemployment in the state, should be included. Eden Prairie residents who sit in traffic should have their interests addressed.

Now, it’s no accident that President Obama recently stood at Union Depot — the hub of the Central Corridor — to announce new federal investments in transportation that will provide jobs and promote economic opportunity. We are a national model, and we’re known for having our act together. But that good will is not guaranteed forever.

The situation calls for our leaders and communities to come together. If we succeed, then generations will know that in the Twin Cities you can get where you are going quickly and easily on the light rail. To achieve our vision of a vibrant, equitable region we must extend our metro transit system and build the Southwest Rail Line. Let’s live up to our promise as a diverse community that gets things done.

It’s time to decide.

Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2014 - 10:55 am.

    It can’t be done right move on to the next project

    There are other light rail lines in the works. If MPLS can’t swallow the realities of the SWLR lane move on to the next.

    You have one group of affluent home owners who want to establish a park in their back yards at the expense of the entire city of St. Louis Park. They don’t want to see the light rail, OR the freight rail. Instead of compromising they’re trying to force the most expensive and destructive options through. Only the Deep tunnel will establish their pristine vision, and nothing but the relocation of the freight rail will eliminate the freight rail entirely.

    For years St. Louis Park residents were told that the deal involved more trains on EXISTING tracks. Most of us were actually OK with that. Then suddenly last Aug we found out that a major reroute involving the demolition of 50 homes and businesses and a two story berm would be required. THAT was never part of the deal, and in fact there was never actually a deal. Now they say they have a new plan that doesn’t require a berm, but the RR company has rejected that as unsafe and impractical engineering. So MPLS expects SLP must either accept a major disruption with a two story berm AND increased train traffic OR increased train traffic on dangerous tracks? All so a few affluent home owners can be rid of train traffic they’ve living with for 30 years rail corridor that existed for a century?

    Here’s the thing, MPLS needs the SWLR more than SLP. If the Mayor of MPLS thinks she’s serving her city best by catering to a few affluent residents in one neighborhood so be it. Move on to the next project.

    Oooor, my idea has always been if the Kenilworth corridor is too much of a hassle just terminate the SWLR line down by Lake Calhoun and use buss’s and street cars with much smaller footprints to get commuters the rest of the way into the city. Kind of like Boston’s South station. The Kenilworth line would be nice, it would be better, but if your going to let a few affluent residents in one neighborhood make and break light rail lines you gotta settle for less.

  2. Submitted by Kasia McMahon on 03/14/2014 - 11:01 am.

    Minnesota needs more than construction jobs

    “It will whisk suburban residents to work or recreation in downtown.” That is exactly the problem. The benefits of this project are significantly swayed to the suburbs at the EXPENSE of city residents. I also wanted to dispel some of the other myths that Rep. Ellison included in his commentary:

    MYTH: Eden Prairie residents are waiting in traffic until this project is built.
    No, Eden Prairie residents are served by a very popular private bus company (Southwest Transit). According to a survey of these riders, 79% said they will continue to prefer the bus service over light rail because it offers more door-to-door service (it can drive right into a corporate campus), has wi-fi, quiet zones for cell phones, and convenient parking. Not to mention that the bus service is and will continue to be a faster option than the train.

    MYTH: This project will relieve highway congestion.
    According to the DEIS, less than 4000 cars will be taken off the road BY 2030. This will not significantly reduce congestion during rush hour (132,000 cars on the road).

    MYTH: This project will reduce carbon emissions.
    Not according to the DEIS. At several at-grade crossings and all SWLRT stations, especially those with park and ride facilities, vehicle traffic and air toxics will increase. By 2050, overall reduction in air toxics should occur, but only due to required regulatory improvements in vehicle efficiency and fuel emissions, not due to positive impacts of SWLRT. (DEIS p. 4-69, 4-75)

    MYTH: This project serves low-income communities.
    81% of all SWLRT riders will be from the suburbs. The two “north” Minneapolis stations (still a bus ride away for most north Minneapolis residents) have the lowest ridership projections: Royalston-432, Van White -362. These two stations combined are still lower than the smallest suburban station: Eden Prairie City West – 1,007.

    Rep. Ellison is right about one thing. Construction jobs are on the line as well as millions of development dollars. Is it just me, or should a $1.5 billion dollar transit project actually do more than create construction jobs?

    If connecting Minneapolis residents to job opportunities in the suburbs is important then let’s do it now. TODAY. Let’s increase our hybrid bus fleet (made in MN btw) and send more routes to the suburbs.

  3. Submitted by Rich Miller on 03/14/2014 - 11:53 am.

    Get on to the next debacle

    SWLRT is something Minneapolis can get along without. It is a flawed concept that had a tie vote when the route was chosen(uptown was the other top route) It will not help the Northsiders that need jobs because the stations there do not serve them. The only thing worse than this project is the next one proposed, again going through a park.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 03/14/2014 - 06:48 pm.

      I’m sick and tired of all kinds of people purporting to speak for Northside residents. Why don’t you go and *ask* them if they’ll use it? Because I can assure you, they will say “yes!”

      I don’t know your background Rich but it is beyond infuriating that relatively wealthy white southwest Minneapolis residents assume they know what is best for Northsiders.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/15/2014 - 10:30 am.

        Who are YOU pretending to speak for?

        David, the reason that LR station is being eliminated is because the residents want the line in a tunnel instead of at grade level. If they want to use the LR so badly why do they want it in a tunnel where they can’t get to it? Maybe YOU should talk to your neighbors.

        • Submitted by David Greene on 03/17/2014 - 09:03 pm.

          Tunnels

          Paul, the stations serving North Minneapolis are not in the Kenilworth corridor. There are no tunnels there.

  4. Submitted by Judy Meath on 03/14/2014 - 04:45 pm.

    SWLRT as configured is a mistake

    Rep Ellison, this SWLRT route barely dips into North Minneapolis. The ridership projections for the two stations on the outskirts of N. Mpls are LOW (lowest of the whole route), according the project’s own DEIS. Plus the train goes through the lowest populated area of Minneapolis, rather than the burgeoning Uptown or elsewhere. If this thing is built, there will be many nearly empty trains running at taxpayer expense, and that simply will not serve our big-picture long-term metro transit vision and needs. Please stop leaning on the City Council to cave.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 03/17/2014 - 09:06 pm.

      Ridership

      By law, ridership projections cannot include proposed development for an area. The areas around Penn, Van White and Royalston are ripe for redevelopment, which is one of the reason Near North residents want the line. They know the economic boost it could bring all along Glenwood and elsewhere. Google the Basset Creek Valley Master Plan to see what the neighborhoods have envisioned. We have an incredible opportunity to transform an area of poverty and lift up residents to become an area of opportunity and prosperity.

  5. Submitted by Doug Trumm on 03/15/2014 - 12:11 am.

    Don’t forgot about Near North

    I think Rep. Ellison is right to laud the equity a SW light rail line could promote. Statistically speaking, Near North is more economically depressed than North. (Near North households average $32,400 versus $45,700 in North/Camden in 2009 according to mncompass.org.) In other words, the higher concentrations of poverty closer to SWLRT rather than farther north. In an ideal world Near North and North would be even better served, but SWLRT does provide decent access. It’s unfortunate that Penn Station would require crossing a busy 394 overpass to reach Near North, but it’s still workable with quality bus lines to feed the stations. I think we should take the ridership projections with a grain of salt. Minneapolis station ridership could be much higher than early predictions. Hiawatha has crushed predictions even though redevelopment has been slow along the line due to the timidity of both developers and local government in pushing through projects.

    I think the construction job issue is a bit of a red herring. The economic question the LRT has to answer is would provide economic value in the long term through value capture and being well used enough to cover operation costs. Temporary construction jobs are not going to get a $1.5 billion return on investment.

    I wish there was a better alignment, but I think Matt Steele says it best in his article: Triage Now, Rehabilitation Later at http://streets.mn/2014/02/11/southwest-lrt-plan/. SWLRT helps the metro’s overall transit system and we shouldn’t scrap it just because it’s not perfect.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/15/2014 - 10:48 am.

    In a perfect world

    We could just tell the freight rail company that the current SLP rail line, with some minor changes is all they’re gonna get, so live with it. But since they want to run larger and heavier trains in the future and Kenilworth line allows that whereas the current SLP line does not, somethings got to give. As a matter of basic fairness the status quo is less disruptive, requires no demolitions, and impacts fewer people than moving the freight rail our of Kenilworth.

    I have to say I fully support the light rail projects, the buss lines are not as efficient and do not promote transit development. Mulit mode transit systems have been long since been demonstrated their superiority to auto-centric transit systems in urban areas the size of the the Twin Cities. But the lines be to designed with everyone in mind, you can’t let one group of affluent residents impose boutique requirements.

    If I was charge I’d use the deep tunnel because I think it’s silly to pop up for 20 seconds and go back down again, and keep the bike trail and freight where it is. If I’d been in charge in the way back when I’da run it through uptown in a subway, but that’s clearly out of the question now.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/15/2014 - 10:57 am.

    I remind Mr. Ellison…

    We were on the verge of making a decision, and I believe preliminary construction would already be underway, Had Dayton not taken the unseemly step of suddenly requiring more “study” which only duplicated studies already done and produced no more useful data beyond what we already had. The “new” engineering proposal is an unworkable fail and Dayton’s “request” has been the biggest stumbling block.

    It’s hard to ignore the implication that affluent residents in the Kenilworth neighborhood, upon seeing that the design plan would not go their way, made a phone call that brought Dayton into this at the last minute.

    If Mr. Ellison is looking for movement on this, I suggest he call Governor Dayton, because frankly, had it not been for Dayton’s obstruction, we would be on our way by now. Just maybe not the way Kenilworth wanted.

  8. Submitted by Keith Morris on 03/15/2014 - 05:17 pm.

    Mr. Ellison should take a bus out to the jobs in the SW burbs…

    Then he would see that LRT will do almost nothing to connect city residents to jobs out there save for those in the immediate area of an LRT station and even then it may be very difficult. Try getting dropped off at a bus shelter where no sidewalks exist to be cleared and snow is plowed up against where a sidewalk would be. I suppose us city folk should just walk on the road with 50 MPH traffic and be thankful for Mr. Ellison wanting to put us there.

    Here’s the thing, if the SW burbs want urban transportation, which obviously by definition can only succeed with a large stretch in an urban environment (like Central Corridor and Hiawatha), then all SW burbs involved need to adopt smart growth policies on par with those of Mpls-St Paul. This helps guarantee that these suburbs will be building and rebuilding to make this $1.6 billion investment worth the cost because that’s what is needed to compensate low ridership once it debuts. Also very important is that these suburbs pledge to address the “last mile”issue,that is, getting people safely from the suburban LRT station to their destinations such as jobs. A certain amount of funding committed to making roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians with sidewalks, bike lanes/paths, and bus service to get around the suburbs should be a prerequisite before any consideration to receive an urban form of transportation costing $1.6 billion.

    If they agree to these conditions then we can seriously consider moving forward, because this is what is absolutely necessary for LRT to work since high ridership numbers mandate dense urban neighborhoods to produce said numbers along with urban environments to maximize access to all stations via walking, biking, busing, etc, and that is going to take a long time to happen in the SW burbs. Otherwise, we have a system that ignores people like us who live in the city and use mass transit daily by omitting our dense urban areas like Uptown and North. Suburbanites in Eden Prairie aren’t being expected to go to Minnetonka to access the SWLRT, so why are we expected to go out of our way in order to access it?

    Suburbanites, the number that commute Downtown at least, will use it only twice daily, but as commuters that’s the only time they’ll be using it aside from occasional weekend trips, which makes funding the high frequency operational costs ridiculous. Visitors including tourists most certainly aren’t going to have a reason to use it. What are they going to do visit all the thrilling destinations and cultural amenities in Eden Prairie? Yet they’ll be guaranteed a train every 10 minutes, while those staying Downtown wanting to check out NE’s taprooms around 13 Ave NE, as featured in the NYT mind you, will have to wait 20-30 minutes or more for the 11 just to take them across the river. By the time they wait and get there they could have taken the train to a Chili’s or Applebee’s, because apparently that’s where we need to focus our transportation dollars.

    Mr. Ellison should also take a trip to DC to see what happens when you plop a transit rail line into a sea of suburban sprawl like he is proposing: you have more sprawl several miles away from the the end of the blue line where people drive over 30 minutes from car-dependent areas just to reach the park and ride to get on the LRT line. They have ten or so lanes on the highways out there, but that doesn’t stop you from sitting in traffic well outside of rush hour for an extra 15 or so minutes. And where are all the new job opportunities? Well, guess they’ll just have to spend lots more money on extensions all because they built in suburbs that didn’t adopt smart growth polices. And this is what he wants for us? I can tell Mr. Ellison what time it is; it’s time to get real.

  9. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 03/15/2014 - 08:07 pm.

    The worst reason ever to spend tax dollars.

    I’m typically a strong supporter of my congressman, Keith Ellison, but this rationale really bothers me. To say that we better spend a billion tax dollars now, on a bad project, before we lose our chance, is the worst abuse of the taxpayer that I can think of. It makes all federal spending look bad.

    I had expected Keith to support a program that would actually help his earnest low income constituents. But this will not. The uptown area is bursting at the seams with new apartments and the transportation is already starting to bog down.

    Let’s save this huge sum for something that benefits all equally.

  10. Submitted by Charlie Lazor on 03/16/2014 - 05:20 pm.

    SW jobs promise is false

    Keith Morris’ comment re connecting suburban LRT stations to an infrastructure to take people that last mile is critical. Without that next leg of mobility infrastructure, people won’t use LRT to get to SW suburb jobs because it won’t get them where they need to go.
    This is also the Achilles heel of SWLRT, dropping people on the far west edge of downtown. Who is going to walk 8-12 blocks or more in the winter [or summer] when they can pull into the parking garage in their building?

    Run SWLRT thru Uptown and run it into the heart of the city. Run Bottineau thru North and into the heart of the city. THAT would be TRANSFORMATIVE to the Metro and North.

    The current alignments are nibbling around the edges at exceptional cost. Gotta get it right Mr Ellison.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 03/18/2014 - 09:29 pm.

      Jobs & Downtown

      SWLRT will interline with the Green Line. That’s why it’s called the “Green Line Extension.” It will go to exactly the same downtown stops as the Green Line. It will also go to the U of M and St. Paul.

      There are lots of good jobs in walking distance from SWLRT stations. Beltline, Wooddale, Blake, Downtown Hopkins, Opus, Golden Triangle, Town Center and Southwest Station all have walkable jobs in the area. It’s easier some places than others but all have jobs in walking distance. Yes, certainly improved local bus service will help. With every other transitway project we have seen a reconfiguration of local bus routes to better work with the new service. Why would we expect anything less for this line?

  11. Submitted by Michael Oldenburg on 03/17/2014 - 09:03 am.

    SWLRT: Listen to the will of the people!

    I am in support of mass transit and the development of responsible light rail transit. As a resident and business owner living in Minneapolis, I want to voice my opinion regarding the currently proposed SWLRT. I believe the following items are important for a responsible and successful SWLRT project:
    1. The “deeper cut and cover tunnel” is unstudied and its environmental impact is unknown;
    2. NO tunnels should be used in the Kenilworth corridor;
    3. NO co-location of freight and light rail in the Kenilworth corridor; and,
    4. $1.56 billion for light rail transit that neglects population density is fiscally irresponsible.
    St. Louis Park and Minneapolis residents should be applauded for trying to promote the will of the people to have light rail mass transit actually serve the people living in the vicinity of that proposed SWLRT project. While it might appear to some that Minneapolis is slowing the development of light rail, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Minneapolis is trying to promote a sensible approach to light rail and wants the project to be done right. Of all the parties involved, I believe that our Metro leaders from Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council should be held responsible for putting this valuable mass transit project at risk of failure. These Metro leaders did not do thorough and complete studies, and failed to do adequate planning for mass transit that would actually serve the people living in its path and thus promote growth and development in those areas of need.
    Please listen to the concerns and requests of Minneapolis residents. Thank you for your time.

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