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Why is Southwest LRT in trouble? Blame county-led planning

The current system leads county commissioners to promote their favored projects for parochial political reasons and to gloss over any problems.

Rendering of the proposed Southwest LRT shallow tunnels.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

During the final planning of the Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line, then-Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell remarked many times it was a miracle that any major infrastructure projects ever get built.

The reason, Bell said, was that there are so many opportunities under state and federal law for community interests to raise objections and demand changes. They effectively wield “veto power” over such projects, Bell observed.

That the Central Corridor project is now nearing completion is a tribute, in no small part, to Bell’s patience and perseverance. He participated in more than 70 negotiating sessions just with the University of Minnesota over the train’s alignment through campus. I am painfully aware, having attended many of them while serving as the council’s public affairs director.

The Central Corridor LRT line now is scheduled to open on June 14. But the next train project in the queue, the Southwest Corridor LRT line, may never get out of the station. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, driven by vocal community groups in each city, are threatening to exercise the veto power that Bell described.

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The major issue, unresolved for many years, is whether to reroute a freight rail line from Minneapolis to St. Louis Park to make way for LRT. Minneapolis is insisting on the change and St. Louis Park is just as strongly opposed. This issue should have been resolved before the Met Council hired staff, retained consultants and spent $30 million on engineering.

One reason it was not resolved is the flawed, county-led system used in this region to study corridors with high transit potential, and recommend the best transit mode and alignment to serve them. Too often, this leads county commissioners to promote their favored projects for parochial political reasons and to gloss over any problems.

In the case of Central, Ramsey County commissioners studied the corridor and alternatives to serve it for nearly two decades, ultimately recommending the development of an LRT line with 16 stations in an 11-mile alignment along University and Washington avenues between the two downtowns.

However, just a few months after the Met Council approved the project and agreed to pursue federal funding, Ramsey County commissioners asked the council to study a totally new alignment looping through downtown St. Paul and to add three stations being sought by inner-city groups that were not in the county’s original plan. Talk about political grandstanding!

Resolving these issues – as well as lawsuits filed by the university, community groups and Minnesota Public Radio – slowed the project while adding significantly to its cost.

Two decades of study

Hennepin County spent nearly two decades studying the 16-mile Southwest Corridor from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, where it would connect with the Hiawatha (now called the Blue) and Central (Green) LRT lines near Target Field.

After evaluating multiple alignments, the county ultimately recommended one using the so-called Kenilworth rail corridor between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis.

The Met Council approved the county’s recommendation for Southwest in 2010, assumed responsibility for the project and secured federal approval to begin preliminary engineering, the first step in the process for securing federal matching funds.

But the council did so with the clear understanding that Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) would retain the responsibility for resolving the dispute over whether and how to relocate the freight railroad tracks in the Kenilworth alignment.  The county and MnDOT never delivered on their promise and – four years later – it seems all but forgotten.

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Instead, everyone has dug in their heels, with residents of the Kenwood community insisting that the freight railroad be relocated to St. Louis Park as a pre-condition for LRT and St. Louis Park activists saying no way. In addition, the railroad – which has considerable power under federal law – has exhibited little inclination to move.

Resolving the dispute was further complicated in January when Gail Dorfman resigned from the Hennepin County Board to accept a job with a social service agency. Dorfman, whose district included St. Louis Park and most of southwestern Minneapolis, had been the leading champion of the Southwest Corridor project.

The Met Council has unsuccessfully floated multiple proposals for resolving the impasse, including several different plans for relocating the freight railroad tracks or running LRT in tunnels beneath them. Meanwhile, the cost of the project has soared – from the original $1.25 billion projection to between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion – depending on which of the tunnel options is included.

On Monday, project planners again recommended a design that includes two short tunnels underneath the freight tracks and a nearby recreational trail, with the LRT tracks emerging to cross the channel connecting the two lakes. That solution, which was put on hold once before, will be considered on Wednesday by an advisory committee representing the corridor and on April 9 by the Met Council. But Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges remains unenthused.

If the Met Council is to break the stalemate, it likely will require much greater leadership and support from Gov. Mark Dayton and key legislators than they have provided to date.

Other projects

The current county-led transit planning process can claim some successes, most notably the Hiawatha LRT line. But they are overshadowed by some costly and questionable uses of scarce transportation dollars:

  • The $320-million Northstar commuter rail line, pushed by Anoka and Hennepin counties, has been a major disappointment. Opened in 2009, Northstar never has achieved even the weekday ridership of 3,400 that was projected for its first year of operation. Northstar’s weekday ridership in 2013 averaged 2,782 and it required a hefty operating subsidy of $15.55 per ride.

  • St. Paul’s Union Depot was purchased and renovated by Ramsey County at a cost of $243 million, including $124 million in federal funds. Reopened 15 months ago, the historic depot still is awaiting its first train. Once track improvements are completed, it will serve a mere two Amtrak trains a day – down from the 282 trains that stopped at the depot during its peak.  Meanwhile, visions of developing a center for bicycle commuters and leasing 95,000 square feet of retail space have yet to be realized. LRT trains soon will be stopping 75 feet in front of the depot, but riders will have little reason to enter the building unless there’s something to draw them in.

  • The plans of Ramsey and Washington Counties to develop commuter rail lines from Hinckley to St. Paul (Rush Line) and Hastings to St. Paul  (Red Rock) have been shelved after years of expensive studies. The reason? It became clear even to county officials that these corridors likely will never have enough ridership to support rail lines. Their focus has since shifted to the Interstate 94 (Gateway) corridor east of downtown St. Paul.

Clearly, it would have been possible to spend much of this transportation funding more effectively.

If state lawmakers hope to improve transit and keep pace with other metro areas, they need to reexamine the municipal consent law that enables cities to hold regional transit project hostage until they get their way.

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Lawmakers also need to dramatically reduce the role of counties in planning and developing transit projects, consolidate these responsibilities in a regional body like the Met Council that is charged with looking out for the best interests of the entire region and then hold that agency accountable for results.