The ongoing attempts to get control of the ballooning budget of Southwest LRT isn’t really a battle between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
It just seems that way sometimes.
The two cities bookend the 16-mile extension of the Green Line, a $1.66 billion project that turned into a $2 billion project in April, when new cost estimates were released.
To save the project — which faces other challenges in addition to the budget — officials in the cities along the route pledged to cut $341 million in spending, which would get the cost down to the previous level. While there are options to cut services and amenities to save money all along the line, including in St. Louis Park, Edina, Hopkins and Minnetonka, most of the public conversation about how to reduce cost has involved Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.
Eden Prairie, sitting at the southwest terminus of the planned route, could lose two or more stations, along with parking and other facilities as part of the budget cutting. If the proposed stations at Mitchell Road and at the Southwest Transit Center were cut, for example, it would save the project up to $225 million in costs. But it would also deny it thousands of potential riders and eliminate access to thousands of jobs, factors that aren’t just numbers to those involved in the project. Ridership and economic development potential are important factors in keeping the project eligible for federal matching money that is hoped to cover 50 percent of the final price tag.
The options being floated in Minneapolis wouldn’t save as much money, but are loaded with political implications. Cutting stops at Royalston, Van White or Penn Avenue would offer some savings, but they are also the stations that would best serve high-poverty and high-minority neighborhoods of North Minneapolis. And it was less than a year ago that a station at 21st Street, along with pedestrian and bike improvements throughout the Minneapolis portion of the route, was added to the plan as a concession to get a reluctant Mayor Betsy Hodges and city council majority to grudgingly endorse the alignment.
“Minneapolis has taken a number of hits,” state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said this week. “To have cuts — especially to things that mitigated the impacts [of the route] — adds insult to injury.”
Did Eden Prairie ’cause’ cost increases?
Over the last several years, Eden Prairie has succeeded in winning several adjustments to the Southwest LRT alignment, making the line and the stations more accessible to residents and businesses.
But those changes also meant more private property would have to be purchased, more businesses would have to be relocated and more wetlands would have to be crossed. One of the 34 bridges on the line, for example, is a half-mile stretch in Eden Prairie that is in fact a viaduct along Technology Drive. Rather than fill wetlands for the route, the tracks would sit on pilings.
Because much less is known about the geology of the areas beyond the proposed Shady Oak station in Hopkins, that area has produced more surprises and added costs than segments that have already been well-trod.
Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens said it shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, that as more-detailed engineering is conducted that the cost of building in these sections grows. “Of course if you are on established rail corridors you are on ground you know a lot about,” she said. “As they do more engineering, they’re finding additional costs.”
But she rejects any suggestion that Eden Prairie “caused” the April cost increases. The alignment has been intended to end at Mitchell Road for several years, she said.
Minneapolis’ stance against any cuts
While Tyra-Lukens has been open to her city absorbing significant cuts, Minneapolis has taken a different tack. Not only has Mayor Betsy Hodges’ representative on the Corridor Management Committee, Peter Wagenius, taken an aggressive stance against any cuts to the city’s portion of the line, he has tried to direct the committee — made up mostly of elected officials — to make deeper cuts in Eden Prairie.
Toward that end, Wagenius has tried to get project staff to break out the causes of increased cost of the line by city. “Shouldn’t we know the geography — the location of the cost increases — to relate back to cost reductions that we make?” Wagenius asked project manager Mark Fuhrmann at a May corridor management committee meeting. “If there is a particular item that is responsible for a disproportionate share of the cost increase, shouldn’t that be factored in?”
Fuhrmann said the project — covering 16 miles with 17 currently planned stations — didn’t account for costs that way.
Wagenius didn’t specifically mention Eden Prairie in his bid to pinpoint costs by location, and he didn’t respond to requests for an interview to talk about the city’s position. But he has also expressed interest in a suggestion by a pair of key state lawmakers that Southwest LRT end in Hopkins, where the proposed alignment breaks away from existing freight rail right of way. “You would be losing more riders but you would also be saving more costs,” he said of the Hopkins option at a June 3 meeting.
Those two key legislators, Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, have also urged Met Council Chair Adam Duininck to have his staff break out the costs by jurisdiction. “Is the portion of the project corridor west of Shady Oak responsible for a disproportionately larger share of the $341 million in increased project costs,” wrote the two DFL lawmakers, both of whom represent Minneapolis’ District 61, in a letter to Duininck. That segment “includes seven grade separations (both bridges and tunnels) including a 3,000 foot long bridge over a wetland. What is the per miles cost of this section of the project?”
Dibble and Hornstein aren’t just any lawmakers. Both play key roles in how the state funds transportation. Dibble is the chair of the Senate Transportation of Committee, while Hornstein is the DFL lead on the counterpart in the House. Hornstein said this week that getting the cost breakout from Met Council is “very important because we have a general idea that most of these costs have to do with wetlands mitigation in Eden Prairie. To not be able to tell us how they’re spending the money is problematic.”
At the June 3 corridor management committee meeting, Duininck said staff would respond to the lawmakers’ letter, but not before the final project budget is approved by the Met Council on July 8.
‘How do they think they’re going to get to yes?’
Minneapolis’ approach hasn’t exactly gone over well with other members of the committee, which holds consensus building as a key value. “We’ve been working on this project for 15 years,” said Hennepin County Commission Chair Jan Callison at the May meeting.” “We’ve made decisions all along, and they’ve all contributed to where we are today. Trying to segregate it more is only going to be divisive.”
Some of what is being played out is the politics of resentment, of Minneapolis feeling mistreated by the suburban majority on the committee and the Met Council. Eden Prairie got the alignment it wanted, while Minneapolis got the alignment it hated. St. Louis Park blocked the rerouting of freight through that city while Minneapolis was pressured to accept co-location of freight and light rail. Minneapolis accepted mitigation measures in return but now sees those measures being threatened.
Tyra-Lukens said she doesn’t think Minneapolis can expect to have no cuts as part of a process looking to save $341 million, nor does she think it is in that city’s interest to carve Eden Prairie out of the project.
“The jobs in the corridor are in downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, there isn’t much in between,” she said. “You’d think they’d want to provide their residents with easy access to the jobs in Eden Prairie.”
Tyra-Lukens isn’t the only CMC member puzzled by Minneapolis’ position. “I don’t understand the politics of how they think they’re going to get to yes?” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “Scoring debating points is not the issue. It’s how do we get to yes.”
McLaughlin agreed that it is not realistic for any city on the alignment to think they won’t have to share in the cuts. “It’s about equitable distribution of the pain.”
Many of the suggested cuts in Minneapolis don’t appear to be likely, based on comments from committee members. The Royalston Station, for example, appears secure, as is 21st Street and either Van White Station or Penn Station. But is in unlikely that the city will be spared any cuts at all.
If Minneapolis is outvoted, it won’t be the first time. The current alignment came with Hodges casting the only no vote. But significant changes to the alignment, such as elimination of a station, would trigger another round of so-called municipal consent under state law. That means the Minneapolis city council would have the authority to reject the changes within its jurisdiction and therefore block the project.
For his part, Duininck said he understands the pressures facing the political leadership of both Eden Prairie and MInneapolis. Eden Prairie seems likely to bear the largest share of the cuts, perhaps losing two stations that serve thousands of residents and businesses. But Minneapolis accepted co-location of freight and light rail despite public outcry, and now must defend the sweeteners it received.
“The most important role for me to play is to maintain consensus,” Duininck said. “I don’t know if unanimity is essential but we do need consensus.”