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Think a lawsuit is the only thing that could stop Southwest Light Rail? Think again.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A handbill pasted to the kiosk at Theodore Wirth Park's Quaking Bog parking area.

Gaining municipal consent from Minneapolis for the alignment of Southwest Light Rail Transit was an important step for the project, but there is a less-talked-about decision set for next year that could delay the project, and perhaps even stop it.

Just as a federal lawsuit filed by SWLRT opponents Monday could delay the expansion of the Green Line, the Metropolitan Council would face delays in getting federal permission to move forward if it doesn’t have commitments from state and local sources for half of the $1.64 billion price tag.

And not all of that money has been legally committed to the project. Specifically, the $164 million that is the share assigned to state government by the Met Council. Of that, only $44 million has been set aside by the state Legislature. The final $120 million must be appropriated during the 2015 session or the Met Council will not be able to make the crucial application to the Federal Transit Administration.

That appropriation will be less in doubt — though certainly not guaranteed — should Gov. Mark Dayton win a second term in the governor’s office and the House remain in DFL hands. But if either are controlled by Republicans after the November election, the funding could be in question.

GOP candidates campaigning against rail 

GOP nominee for governor Jeff Johnson has stated his opposition to the 16-mile expansion of the line. His was the only vote against project approval by the Hennepin County Commission.

Jeff Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Jeff Johnson

“I am not supportive of this, which doesn’t surprise anyone,” Johnson said last month before voting no. “I have been asking for years for a cost-benefit analysis for this as to how it will relieve congestion in comparison to its cost. I’ve never seen that, because it’s not going to relieve congestion.” 

Johnson has made similar statements on the campaign trail, telling the St. Cloud Times last week he would oppose using state funds for the project.

Legislative Republicans have made opposition to rail transit a key plank of their transportation policy. Even a suburban Republican from an area that will be served by the expansion, Eden Prairie’s Rep. Jenifer Loon, opposed the project and urged the city to withhold municipal consent for the alignment.  “There isn’t, certainly, broad support on the Republican side for this project,” Loon said.

Concerns by GOP lawmakers range from doubts that it is a cost-effective transportation investment to philosophical beliefs that an unelected body shouldn’t be making such significant decisions.  

Loon said those concerns may stretch across party lines. The DFL, which controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office the last two sessions, didn’t push for the final funding either.

State Sen. John Pederson

Sen. John Pederson of St. Cloud, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, said GOP control of either House or the governor’s office would likely cause the expansion to stall.

“The Legislature has let roads and bridge projects fall behind and many think that’s because of spending on rail and transit,” Pederson said. “Many Minnesotans believe car travel is still the most efficient and cost effective transportation system.”

He too thinks DFL control doesn’t guarantee the SWLRT appropriation because the DFL senate majority is based on a handful of members who won close races in 2010. All are up for reelection in 2016.

“The closer they get to the election, the harder it will be,” Pederson said of proposed transportation tax increases.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh acknowledged that the 2015 session is important to completing the funding commitments for SWLRT but expressed confidence that it would be approved.

“Our approach to the session is to talk about how the state of Minnesota will fund transit to accommodate the growth in the Metro region,” she said Friday. “That’s a conversation we’ll have regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in control.”

Looking for a dedicated funding source

Haigh said the Met Council will also urge the Legislature to once again consider a proposal made in 2013 by Dayton to create a dedicated source of money to cover the state’s share of transit projects like SWLRT and the proposed Bottineau expansion of the Blue Line. That plan would have added a half cent to the sales tax in the metro area. It would be on top of the existing quarter cent sales tax for the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is covering 30 percent of SWLRT costs.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh

Haigh said such a dedicated source will free up other state transportation funds for non-transit transportation projects.

“We’re just as interested in investments in roads as anyone who drives a car,” she said. “Our buses travel on roads.” But she said the state must get more out of existing capacity via encouraging transit use through enhancements like bus rapid transit.

Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said the governor has not yet declared what he might propose to the 2015 Legislature regarding a dedicated funding source for transit. Dayton remains committed, however, to providing the state’s 10 percent share of the project costs for Green Line expansion, Swenson said.

A broad coalition of more than 200 elected officials and organizations is pushing for an even larger dedicated transit fund than the 2013 Dayton proposal as part of a bigger agenda of transportation improvements. Move MN is calling for a three-quarters of a cent sales tax increase for transit projects, the same amount that was included in a House bill that cleared committee during the 2014 session but did not advance in the House.

Lawsuit looms

The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court seeks a declaratory judgement that the Met Council hasn’t followed environmental protection laws and the consent given by the five cities along the route as well as Hennepin County was premature. Only after a supplemental draft environmental impact statement is in hand can the Met Council trigger the municipal consent process, the suit alleges.

George Puzak
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
George Puzak

The plaintiff is the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, which is made up of opponents of the decision to co-locate freight trains and light rail tracks through the Kenilworth Corridor, between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. That route, they assert, threatens the lakes and the bike path through the corridor. Named defendants are the Federal Transit Administration, the Met Council and Haigh. 

“The Met Council must be stopped in its tracks until it does the right thing — comply with the law,” said alignment opponent George Puzak.

Met Council staff has said that the state legislation setting up the process envisioned the EIS and municipal consent processes to run side-by-side,  not sequentially. It also has said that public comment will be taken once the supplemental EIS is completed early next year. If the EIS identifies new environmental threats that cause redesign of the plan, the Met Council will have to restart the municipal consent process.

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Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/09/2014 - 10:52 am.

    finally…

    A Republican position I can agree with. A streetcar parallel to Lake street but ending at Highway 100 would draw more riders in a day than this boondoggle will draw in a week. I bet you couldn’t fill two buses a day with riders from the North Side to EP Golden Triangle. Streetcars/light rail make sense in a densely populated urban area. Unfortunately this path has an extra 10 miles of track going by some park and ride lots that are already serviced by buses.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2014 - 08:36 am.

      No, it wouldn’t

      So far our light rail lines become the most heavily used transit lines in the system almost the day they open and the SWLTR will be no exception. There’s no way your going to 25,000+ people on a street car from St. Louis Park to Uptown every day. And what are you going to do, tear down all the homes and businesses East of 100 so you can build parking lots and ramps for people who want to use the street car? Do you know what the capacity of a street car is compared to LR?

      One thing I’ve noticed about most of these SWLR critics as the emerge from wherever they been, they just keep making stuff up. Tunnels under Uptown are better than existing rail corridors. Transit is about equity rather than moving people. No one’s going to use it. St. Louis Park agreed to demolish 50 homes and businesses and run a two story berm through a mile of the city… AND NOW THEY RENEGED! etc. etc.

      Listen: The people who planned and designed this route and the transit system it’s plugging into didn’t just pull this out of their backsides. Go talk to them, they’re happy to explain how they got here, and why we’re not tunneling under Uptown or running street cars down Minnetonka Blvd. I’m not saying the process is perfect but it does conform to a number of different realities that most of our erstwhile critics around here aren’t even aware of.

  2. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 09/09/2014 - 11:25 am.

    Never thought I’d agree with the GOP, but…

    Stop SWLRT before any more damage is done…

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/09/2014 - 11:41 am.

    Bait and switch

    Our roads spent 8 years deteriorating under republican control. They fought tax hikes to pay for roads, and they fought bigger bonding bills as well. Sure, they hate choo choos, but they also don’t believe in paying for government. Remember the big idea that contractors would front the money for the Crosstown 35W rebuild? Our roads are finally getting repaired because because democrats erased the deficit and bonded the money. If you think republicans will give you better roads just remember the 35W bridge collapse. Sure, roads are a priority… as long as you don’t expect any funding and as soon as we get this voter ID thing passed.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/09/2014 - 02:23 pm.

      not sayin’ I’d vote Republican…

      just that I agree with them on this single issue. And we got to agreement by coming from opposite directions.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/09/2014 - 12:43 pm.

    Free the Kenilworth Corridor 13!

    The relatively small group of people opposed to this project are likely to have no lasting impact, in the courts or at the polls. As for Johnson’s opposition to more light rail, that’s in the Republican DNA now. Silly posters aside, I see no threat to Dayton here.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/09/2014 - 01:59 pm.

    Co locations indeed

    We’re already riding next to RR tracks along the Cedar Lake trail AND the SW LRT trail through SLP and Hopkins. Co-location is already a reality for some of us… and it’s fine.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/09/2014 - 02:03 pm.

    Anyways…

    So much for republican promises of bipartisan cooperation and progress. Clearly their only plan is to return to monkey-wrenching government rather than running it. I think Minnesotan’s have had enough of that. But encourage the campaigns to continue promising a return to gridlock, deficits, and deterioration. And I hope no one points out the strongest demand for these choo choos is coming from solid republican districts to the SW and W.

  7. Submitted by john herbert on 09/09/2014 - 04:59 pm.

    They may be on to something

    The Republicans may have an issue to run on here that can resonate with some independent and modern liberal voters, particularly those near the line.

    Of course nobody wants 100 plus trains running near/next to their homes, but as I have mentioned at other times on these pages – does it make financial sense to spend the astronomical start-up expenses, coupled with annual operating subsidies and maintenance to move such a small number of people from the SW burbs DT in the morning and then home after work?

    I think not and believe many other normal supporters of mass transit, particularly those near the line who ride their bikes DT or take the express bus already, feel the same.

    Two quick points to finish.

    1. Government does not have money, just the funds siphoned from taxpayers so to a large degree it makes no difference where the taxpayer money comes from, it is all ours or at least with “federal money” the obligation to pay it back to creditors rests with us.

    2. This is not about equity. Really, can anyone point to a credible number showing how many people from the North MPLS stations will ride to their jobs in Eden Prairie and Hopkins – if so I’d love to see how many and then divide that into the 20 year cost to see if there is a better alternative.

    I am from North Minneapolis and live near a proposed station in St. Louis Park.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/10/2014 - 10:37 am.

      It depends…

      “does it make financial sense to spend the astronomical start-up expenses, coupled with annual operating subsidies and maintenance to move such a small number of people from the SW burbs DT in the morning and then home after work?”

      Do you think 30,000 people is a “small” number? and in exchange for the billion dollar investment you get transit development and efficiency worth billions more. So you say: “well that’s nothing compared to how many people are driving.” Well sure but but look at how much money we spend on roads, and accidents on roads, and air quality and energy. Transit is about providing options, not replacing roads. And by the way, where the “equity” of 394 or HWY 7?

      Transit isn’t about equity, its about moving people. Anyone who tells you that they’re going to use some kind of transit to restore equity to North MPLS doesn’t know what transit actually does. And anyone who complains about transit’s failure to provide equity doesn’t know what equity is. By all accounts the actual residents of Near North MPLS want this line and are excited about it being right where it is. the only people who seem to be complaining about “equity” are people who live elsewhere and are just looking for a hook to hang their opposition on.

      • Submitted by john herbert on 09/11/2014 - 12:30 pm.

        30,000 rides?

        Paul, could you please let us know where you got that number?

        From recent news reports (Strib, 17 December 2013 by Pat Doyle) I see that Northstar ridership remains at fewer than 3,000 rides per day and the subsidy is over 80% or nearly $20/ride?

        Plus, I would be interested in seeing what development there would be on the line from St. Louis Park to DT as a decent chunk of that stretch is already developed or not available for development.

        Check out other Minn Post articles on this subject that relate to equity – such IS being used as a reason to build this line and I believe that argument is mostly mularkey.

        How about susidizing light industrial development on the Near North and operating additional rapid transit routes from the burbs?

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/12/2014 - 02:11 am.

          Ridership

          A quick Google search says the Met Council predicts ridership to be 33,213 by 2030.

          You may already be aware of this, John, but your comment about subsidies mixes commuter rail in on a light rail article, which are not the same thing.

          Also if you’re concerned about subsidies, it should be noted that all forms of transportation are subsidized, including roads too. Depending on which source you look at, highways are subsidized to the tune of 33% – 50%.

          It should also be noted that the alternative to adding rail is to add more highway lanes. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of space to add more lanes, so that leaves trains as the most viable option.

          • Submitted by john herbert on 09/12/2014 - 01:43 pm.

            Where did they get the numbers?

            Thanks Todd, I did see a similar figure on the Met Council SWLRT dedicated page, there is just no methodology so I cannot assess the accuracy of the projection, but do know that government often provides numbers that suit a particular purpose (Northstar & video gaming come to mind).

            Commuter rail and light rail are mass tranist modes as are buses, lets not play semantics.

            Of course we subsidize highways and all other infrastructure, I am just asking us to consider which subsidy would be the most cost effective for each section. Please note that I did not raise the issue of more highway lanes in my piece. I just wish we could consider more alternatives before appropriating these dollars for which there is no dedicated funding.

            I note that we do not agree and will leave this issue be, but will buy you and Paul a Size 7 from my favorite local micro brewery if ridership equals 34,000 in 2030 – that of course being contingent upon me still living in a state where it snows in May and September 🙂

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2014 - 04:34 pm.

              Numbers..

              John, so far every segment of LR that’s opened has exceeded ridership projections, and they’re all moving around 30,000 people a day. You really want to make that bet? And the difference between a bus, light rail, and commuter rail, is not semantic differences, they are physically different entities. Northstar does NOT run it’s route 224 times a day from six to midnight like the SWLR will for instance, nor does it have its own dedicated rail, or make anywhere near as many stops. Do I have explain what a bus is?

              • Submitted by john herbert on 09/18/2014 - 02:13 pm.

                Let have a discussion

                We disagree on positions, but I did not belittle yours. Rail, light rail, buses… are all forms of mass transit that are subsidized by the taxpayers. Each “entity” should be assessed by using cost benefit analysis to determine if that entity is worth the return.

                This discussion should be about whether the funds spent to subsidize SWRLT could be spent better somewhere else.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/10/2014 - 02:25 pm.

      Cost

      Actually a lot of people do indeed want light rail near their homes. If you live within a quarter mile of the line your house is worth more, took less of a hit in the recent recession, and rebounded sooner, faster, and higher than other homes in the same area.

      To address your other issues, yes, the startup costs and ongoing maintenance does indeed make sense. Freeways are not cheap to build either, cost a lot of money to maintain, not only don’t relieve congestion, but actually contribute to it, and produce a tremendous amount of air pollution that harms and kills people.

      Sounds like a winner to me.

      We’ve invested an astronomical amount of money in highways through the decades. How about a tiny bit of equity on the balance sheets and a couple of sheckles for mass transit?

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2014 - 08:16 am.

        Building off of Todd’s comment…

        Todd points to another problem with the so-called “equity” theory. Todd’s exactly right, homes and apartments within two blocks of transit stations have property values approaching that of lake and ocean front properties. This means that a LR down Broadway wouldn’t bring equity to Northside residents, it would bring gentrification, it would push them out of affordable housing. When Marlys was around she actually raised that issue because we’re seeing it happen along the Green Line now.

        LR down Broadway wouldn’t bring equity, it would a ram a bolt of gentrification right through the heart of the community.

        Now that doesn’t mean we build good transit, but it does mean that “equity” claims are dubious at best.

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/12/2014 - 01:47 am.

          Equity

          I actually think a line through the north side would be a good thing for the area. Yes, it would mean some people get priced out of their homes, but it would also mean some people cash in as their home value increases. ‘Gentrification’ is also another word for investment, which the north side sorely needs. Investment means jobs, both in construction and in the businesses that are created afterwards.

          I don’t think light rail would be a good fit for Broadway though as that route would be better served with street cars. A good rule of thumb is LRT makes stops every couple of miles while street cars stop every couple of blocks. The latter is what Broadway needs to serve the local businesses.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2014 - 09:11 am.

            Its not just about homes

            Local businesses also get priced out because retail rent along the line sky-rockets as well.

            Gentrification is a double edged sword, it can revitalize areas, but at the same time it can depopulate them and displace people already living there. We can talk about the pros and cons of gentrification, but don’t tell me that unaffordable housing higher business costs will bring “equity” to the area. And real estate is also a dicey proposition, sure you can cash in on higher home value, but unless you don’t plan to live in another house somewhere that money goes back into servicing your new debt, it doesn’t make you wealthier. And when you have a population living on low wages with poor or no credit, getting a new mortgage isn’t all that simple. This is why gentrification, while it may improve an area, tends to hit existing residents sooooo hard. Typically gentrification ends up pushing low incomes residents further out and away from job centers. This is why low income housing is becoming an issue in the suburbs.

            Anyways I think a streetcar down Broadway makes more sense than LR. For one thing, I’m not sure Broadway is even wide enough for LR and cars to coexist? I don’t think Broadway is a wide as University for instance is it?

      • Submitted by john herbert on 09/11/2014 - 11:12 am.

        I have not met one yet

        I have yet to actually meet someone in my nighborhood who supports the SWLRT plan or who would use it. As far as home value – ask the folks in the condo’s on the railine what they think about quality of life and value with a hundred trains a day shuttling past.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2014 - 09:15 am.

          Well…

          I guess if you haven’t met anyone supports SWLRT, then such people clearly cannot exist in any significant numbers.

          • Submitted by john herbert on 09/12/2014 - 03:54 pm.

            C’mon

            and since they do not we should not build the darn thing. C’mon Paul, I did not say that. I do consider myself an informed resident of the neighborhood where I have lived for over 20 years and literally do not know a soul who supports this project – I’ll ask around this weekend and see if I can spot one or two 🙂

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2014 - 04:45 pm.

              Not a soul eh?

              Todd and I both live in SLP, maybe you haven’t met us, but we’re not the only ones. Please, do ask around, you’ll be surprised. A lot of people in SLP are actually quite excited about the project. I’ve lived here for 50 years by the way.

              • Submitted by john herbert on 09/12/2014 - 08:49 pm.

                Lighten-up

                As I said, I just do not know any, I really of no resident on my block or neighborhood who supports this project – a statement of fact, not a value judgment – we disagree on policy which is healthy for an educated populace. I hope you are right, and I am wrong, but fear we will both be gone before we’ll know.

              • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/13/2014 - 05:04 am.

                SLP

                I guess that makes me the new kid on the block as I’ve only been here 25 years.

  8. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/09/2014 - 07:11 pm.

    For all you highway lovers –

    Where are you going to find the space and the money to build more lanes on 494, 169, 100, 35E, 62 and 52? I saw an estimate years ago that the 494/35W interchange would cost a billion dollars plus alone. Plus the stretch of 35W from downtown to the southern suburbs is already outmoded and a disaster. For Sen Pederson, how will you raise the money to expand 94 to 3 lanes north? Complete BS from the Republican Party and the worst governor in the history of MN who what watched the 35W bridge and and allowed a bridge to be built which is already substandard. Where is the money coming from you pathetic republicans?

  9. Submitted by Jerome Johnson on 09/09/2014 - 11:24 pm.

    SWLRT, Highways and Jeff Johnson

    Traffic tends to expand to fill available space. So yes, SWLRT will do relatively little to alleviate current southwest metro freeway congestion, but so would most anything else short of getting lots and lots of folks to live much closer to work. SWLRT may do that to a limited extent, as it will provide for greener lifestyle options, but that will not change life on I-394. What Jeff Johnson should, instead, be asking Met Council for is a study to ascertain how much freeway and related auto-centric capability (end-point parking ramps and arterial street improvements, for example) the public will get in the SW Metro for its $1.65 billion? Probably not much.

  10. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/10/2014 - 06:47 am.

    Uh, didn’t the bike trails start out as train beds?

    Screeching about this & that in a pell-mell fashion, doesn’t apportion the disparate parts of assent & opposition that belong grouped together.

    I don’t know about every bike trail, let alone every one under discussion, but quite a few of them were placed on old defunct rail beds.

    Seems to imply that say that [probably] this is the most logical access corridor for a light rail line – with potentially the lowest impact on neighborhoods, etc.

    Somebody doesn’t want light rail.
    Some don’t think this is the best choice for light rail.
    Some just don’t want to hear trains the couple of times they ride their bikes.
    Some want more lanes on 494 & 35W – to magically appear at no cost.

    Hey, why not present a comprehensive analysis of the pros & cons on PBS!
    Take a look at Denver & other cities that have light rail systems.

  11. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 09/10/2014 - 10:20 am.

    I’d encourage MinnPost to look into what all would be required to actually stop the line from being built. It’s not as easy as it seems.

  12. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/10/2014 - 02:37 pm.

    Transit

    Something that’s repeatedly ignored in these articles and comments on roads and trains is that roads don’t fit the needs flor everyone. If you’re too young or old for a license, sight impaired, or a nominee for a judge in Minnesota and have a suspended license, then driving doesn’t work for you. Those people need transit options too. Not to mention out of town visitors who aren’t familiar with our road network or traffic laws. Or people who can’t afford the expense of a car. Typically a car costs $3000 – $6000 a year–a significant expense for someone who doesn’t make a lot of money.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to give those people a way to get around town too?

  13. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/10/2014 - 02:48 pm.

    Rail Support

    Some of the biggest support for rail is coming from the business community. They want to expand their operations (code words for ADD JOBS) in the Twin Cities, but it’s hard for them to find the space for the additional parking spaces for their employees.

    And lest people think that this is only a core city issue, one of the large employers I heard about at a transit meeting has an operation in the Golden Triangle (Eden Prairie) they want to expand. There’s no room near their office building for more parking though, so they’ll have to expand elsewhere if light rail doesn’t go in.

  14. Submitted by John Peschken on 09/16/2014 - 05:22 pm.

    I have been asking for years for a cost-benefit analysis …

    If Jeff Johnson’s only criteria for judging things is the dollars, then we could replace him with a computer that compares the two values and spits out the answer. How about non-economic and hard to measure effects on people and the environment? Do we really want government to be run like a profit maximizing corporation?

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