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Southwest light rail, a project left for dead (more than once), is 25 percent complete

Earlier this month, the Federal Transit Administration sent what’s called the full funding grant agreement for the $2 billion project to Congress, triggering a 30-day review that is mostly a formality.

Southwest Light Rail construction on Excelsior Boulevard in Hopkins.
Southwest Light Rail construction on Excelsior Boulevard in Hopkins.
Courtesy of MetroTransit

When Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison thinks of the long saga known as the Southwest Light Rail Project, she said she thinks of the movie “The Princess Bride.”

The Princess Bride?

Specifically, the scene when Westley’s friends think he is dead and bring him to see the character Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal: “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead,” Max says. “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”

Says Callison: “There were times when I like to say that this project was mostly dead. We cupped it in our hands and we blew on it and we kept it alive.”

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The project, which Callison has lived through first as the mayor of Minnetonka and then as a three-term county commissioner, had so many near-death experiences that she remains unwilling even now to say its construction is a done deal. But the Met Council announced this month that the Federal Transit Administration sent what’s called the full funding grant agreement to Congress, triggering a 30-day review that is mostly a formality.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison
Isn’t that enough?

“The history of this project would make you think you don’t want to count your chickens before they’re hatched,” Callison said.

The commissioner’s caution aside, the Met Council Wednesday is set to authorize senior staff to sign the agreement when it’s presented to them by the FTA — the final, final go-ahead for the $2 billion, 14.5-mile extension of the existing Green Line, which will travel from Target Field Station to SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie. When completed, in 2023, Southwest LRT will easily be the most expensive public works project in Minnesota state history, more than U.S. Bank Stadium, more than the new Stillwater bridge, more than the Green Line or the Blue Line.

A long road

The full funding grant agreement, for $929 million through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, is not what gave the Met Council the confidence to begin construction, which actually started 14 months ago. That came in November of 2018, when the FTA issued the first of several letters of no prejudice, which tell transit agencies that federal money will, in fact, flow, eventually. That guarantee assured Met Council and Hennepin County that both could front the project with local funds with the comfort that they would be repaid. The full funding grant agreement actually sends federal dollars for the project.

Construction on the project is already about 25 percent complete. The project’s biggest construction contract was awarded to Lunda-McCrossan Joint Venture, for $799.5 million, and includes building not just the dual track but 29 bridges for rail, pedestrians, vehicles and the freight railroads that share much of the right of way. It also includes 16 stations, six pedestrian bridges, two tunnels and more than 100 retaining walls. There are 134 subcontractors involved with Lunda-McCrossan.

Southwest Light Rail route
Metropolitan Council
Southwest Light Rail route
A separate systems contract — awarded to Aldridge-Parsons Joint Venture for $194.4 million — will build most-things electrical. That includes overhead lines, signals, power supplies, electrical substations as well as power and signage to the 16 stations.

Those are the two biggest contracts but there are many others. The Met Council has also purchased 27 new rail vehicles for $118 million that will have a slightly different interior than either the familiar Blue Line or Green Line cars.

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About 98 percent of the contracts needed to complete the project have already been awarded, said Project Director Jim Alexander. That removes most of the risk to the budget, he said.

So why is there such a gap of time between the first letter of no prejudice and the full funding grant agreement? 

Alexander said his experience with the FTA is that it “wants to squeeze as much risk out of the project before they sign on the dotted line.” With local funding, contracts and railroad agreements in place, and with legal challenges set aside, there is less risk to the cost and timeline of the project now, he said.

‘We’re going to figure out a way’

In three years, give or take a month or two, paying passengers will begin boarding new light rail trains from 16 different stations in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. 

When that happens, it will mark 13 years since the Met Council applied to the federal government to begin preliminary engineering, though the project’s origins date well before that.

“I think it would be surprising if it did not take a long time,” Callison said. “If you’re going to invest $2 billion, a lot of people are going to want to have input.”

The Blake Road pedestrian tunnel being built in Hopkins.
Courtesy of MetroTransit
The Blake Road pedestrian tunnel being built in Hopkins.
Callison said the project is not only large, expensive and complex, it is also controversial. Over the years, Southwest LRT has faced political, financial, environmental and legal challenges. 

Supporters had to overcome a major environmental challenge from a coalition of neighbors along the Kenilworth Corridor, who argued that the environmental review prejudged the winning route. 

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It also faced overruns that endangered the project itself, political opposition from many in local governments along the route, especially Minneapolis, and hard negotiations from the BNSF Railway

Regional governments also had to drastically reconfigure the source of local funding after GOP lawmakers took state funds off the table, changes that involved the dissolution of a regional entity created to help fund projects like SWLRT.

Complaints that construction could physically damage townhouses and a large condo building along Cedar Lake trail led Metro Transit and its contractors to use a less-damaging method to sink pilings in preparation for a tunnel between Cedar Lake Drive and the Midtown Greenway.

The $2 billion, 14.5-mile extension of the existing Green Line will travel from Target Field Station in the North Loop, above, to SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The $2 billion, 14.5-mile extension of the existing Green Line will travel from Target Field Station in the North Loop, above, to SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie.
And finally, the council had to wait out public opposition to all light rail projects by President Donald Trump, relying on the long-standing agreement between congressional Republicans and Democrats that has carved out a share of federal transportation funds for transit.

Each time those challenges emerged, the project was declared dead — or at least on life support. Yet each time backers pointed to similar obstacles that were said to have killed the Blue Line and the Green Line. 

Callison credits former county commissioners Gail Dorfman and Peter McLaughlin for seeing the project through. “There’s just been a series of challenges and each one we’ve met by saying, ‘We’re gonna figure out a way,’ and we have,” she said. 

The biggest obstacles

Alexander, who joined SWLRT in 2011 and is now the top staffer on the project, said that of all the delays it faced, negotiations with the railroads, especially BNSF, were the hardest to resolve. Railroads are not obligated to share rights of way, and while it will be compensated for what are lifetime easements, the BNSF’s primary concern was its own freight service. (A similar issue — BNSF’s decision not to work with the Met Council on rights of way — has endangered the extension of the Blue Line known as Bottineau LRT.)

To resolve the issue, the Met Council ultimately agreed to pay to move freight lines and bridges to make room for light rail. They also agreed to build a tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor in order to colocate freight and light rail; to build a wall in Minneapolis to separate the two functions; and to relocate tracks where the Northstar Line commuter train cars are stored overnight.

SWLRT funding sources
Metropolitan Council
The last two changes required additional environmental and historic asset review and to get a second batch of approvals from the federal government. “The freight rail topic has been the bulk of the reason why we’ve taken more time on the project,” Alexander said. “It took a long time to get through that.”

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Money was also an issue that put the project at risk. Initially, Southwest LRT was to be funded through the FTA, along with contributions from state transportation funds, county and rail authority property taxes and a sales tax distributed by the five-county Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB).

But Republicans in the Legislature balked at additional state money and the regionalism that had created CTIB began to break down. The solution was the dissolution of the board, allowing each county to not only go it alone but take advantage of another state law that permitted the doubling of the transportation sales tax.

Callison said she laments the loss of the regional approach to transit, “but that’s just not where we are as a region right now.” 

Politics aside, however, the reconfiguration of funding sources has simplified the budgets and made them less subject to multi-jurisdictional arguments or changes in legislative majorities.

Southwest Light Rail construction along Prairie Center Drive in Eden Prairie.
Courtesy of MetroTransit
Southwest Light Rail construction along Prairie Center Drive in Eden Prairie.
Of the total project cost of $2.003 billion, the FTA will provide $929 million, Hennepin County $591.4 million, CTIB $218.9 million (collected before the board dissolved), the regional rail authority $199.5 million, the state $30.3 million, and the cities on the route (other than Minneapolis) $26.4 million. To restore a station at Eden Prairie Town Center that had been delayed during the 2015 cost-cutting, Eden Prairie contributed $1.54 million and also secured a $4 million federal grant for congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

The project has always been more popular in the suburbs than in Minneapolis, where many supported an alignment along Nicollet Avenue to the Midtown Greenway corridor — or no light rail expansion at all.

“A lot of people near the line understand that this will be a significant opportunity for them to access jobs and other opportunities throughout the region and they are excited by it,” she said of residents in her southwest county district. “It’s a little noisy at times, it’s a little difficult to get around at times, bicyclists will miss the trail as it used to be, but there are clear advantages.”