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Fix — don’t nix — Southwest LRT, say local officials

Despite the ballooning cost of the project, elected officials say they would rather cut costs than abandon the 16-mile addition to the region’s light rail system.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

After receiving shocking news 10 days ago that the price tag for Southwest Light Rail Transit has grown by $341 million, both Gov. Mark Dayton and Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said “all options” would be on the table with regard to the project.  

But while staff and decision makers are expected to consider various possibilities — including killing the project outright or replacing it with bus rapid transit — one option appears to be far in the lead. 

Sharpening pencils.

On Wednesday, at a meeting of the corridor management committee — made up of local officials from the jurisdictions served by the current alignment — most members said they wanted to cut project costs in order to bring it back to the previous $1.65 billion budget. A similar message came out of a morning meeting of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the five-county entity that is in charge of spending a special quarter-cent sales tax for transit.

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And the chairs of two advisory committees for the project — one representing business and one community members — also said they want to continue working toward adding the 16-mile, 17-station route to the region’s light rail system.

Project manager Mark Fuhrmann described his staff’s mission as being to “identify cost reductions against that $1.99 billion” that could bring the total cost down to a number that is more-easily approvable by the Met Council.

Members of the corridor management committee also took issue with the other options expected to be examined. Doing nothing would leave a part of the metro that is experiencing both population and employment growth underserved by transit. And expanding bus service and implementing bus rapid transit on dedicated pathways would not tie into the regional system that already connects downtown Minneapolis with the airport, the University of Minnesota, the state Capitol and downtown St. Paul.

“We’re trying to build a 52-mile system,” said Edina Mayor James Hovland. “One-third of the miles are on this system. I think this is a route we should stick with.”

A look at costs of alternatives and how they serve riders and promote economic development should be finished by early June, said Fuhrmann. Cost reductions for light rail will be presented to the corridor management committee and the full Met Council on May 20. Duininck said a decision on the project will be made by early July.

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look put some of the blame for higher costs on the political decision-makers. “Through the course of conversations we’re talking about a tunnel here and a tunnel there, $300 million here and $300 million there, no big deal.” Look said.  “I think it is a big deal. I hope we can rein in the costs here and put the fork down and push away from the table.”

There was some hope expressed Wednesday that the savings could come without too much pain: by reducing the scope of a new maintenance facility planned for Hopkins; by reducing the number of trains needed; or by dipping into a $400 million contingency fund. But the officials on the management committee said they realized that in order to get anywhere close to the numbers they want to get to, those along the route will have to give up some of the sweeteners that were added to win municipal consent.

Hopkins City Council Member Jason Gadd said the cities on the route are “fully engaged” in looking at cost reductions. “We’ve worked very well together to this point and now its up to us to maintain this partnership and knowing each one of us has to look at ways to make sacrifices.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison added: “I believe we can find our way out of this.”

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Cutting stations is an option, but not one Duininck said he wanted to look at first. Each station costs around $5 million, though some that need vertical connections to roadway or trails can cost up to $15 million. But fewer stations also mean fewer riders — an important measurement for federal funding. One station that could produce cost savings — as much at $100 million — is the last one in Eden Prairie, but that’s because it would also save a mile of track construction as well.

The cost hikes were discovered after more-detailed engineering and environmental work, Fuhrmann said, which revealed that the route would have to address more areas of unstable soils, build more retaining walls, and relocated additional businesses. The project team has also decided that more safety equipment is needed at several crossings with roads and freight tracks.

One option that will not be studied is using existing freight rail tracks to offer heavy rail service similar to the Northstar line, which runs between Target Field Station and Big Lake. Unlike the northern corridor, the freight lines toward the southwest are single tracked, which would not allow enough service. The heavy rail track also ends in Hopkins, far short of the SWLRT alignment terminus in Eden Prairie. The projected daily ridership for SWLRT is 35,000 by 2030. The Northstar capacity is between 4,000 and 6,000, Fuhrmann said.

Met Council Chair Adam Duininck
Met Council Chair Adam Duininck

Duininck said after the meeting that both he and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin have spoken with Federal Transit Administrator Therese McMillan and that the project still has the support of the federal government, which would pay 50 percent of the cost. SWLRT is among seven projects included in President Barack Obama’s recommendation for funding under the New Starts program.

McLaughlin said Minnesota has an excellent reputation for pulling off complex projects, and the FTA is confident it can do it again with SWLRT. And he thinks the cities on the route will be ready to make cuts. “They’re all ready to roll up their sleeves and work on this. They do not want this to go away,” he said. They see this as their future and they will participate with us to make sure this happens.”

While the SWLRT cost has risen, first from $1.25 billion to $1.65 and now to $1.99 billion, it is still cheaper than the other New Starts projects comparable in scope. The Mid Coast Corridor project in San Diego is 11 miles long, has nine stations and costs $2.1 billion; the 14-mile, 19-station Red Line in Baltimore cost $2.99 billion; while the Maryland Purple Line, covering 16 miles with 21 stops, is $2.4 billion.

Duininck, however, said the regional leaders he has spoken with do not want to ask the four funding partners for more money and instead are intent on reducing the price and possibly the scope of the project.

That was the approach favored by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis. “The increased cost projections for Southwest Light Rail are a challenge and will require a thorough review of options to bring costs down,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “But we must remember that both Hiawatha and Central Corridor had ample challenges. By working together with an eye toward compromise and cost containment, we made it. We must keep in mind the benefits of bringing transit to this job-rich corridor and the significant federal investment that would come from building the line.”