Minneapolis is playing hardball on reducing the cost of Southwest LRT

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.

Proposed Southwest Light Rail line
Metropolitan Council
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.

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.

Rep. Frank Hornstein
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Frank Hornstein: “Minneapolis has taken a number of hits. To have cuts — especially to things that mitigated the impacts [of the route] — adds insult to injury.”

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.”

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/19/2015 - 11:28 am.

    Elephant in room

    As one looks at the intermediate stations along the way, there is clearly an effort to take care of the need of one highly profitable company, United Healthcare. Has anyone ever suggested that the company be approached for cash contribution to the project. Just consider it “naming rights.” Why call it the Opus Station – why not UHC? They could make a $100 million contribution for permanent naming rights, used to create that station.

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/26/2015 - 03:59 pm.

      Salient point

      Why indeed did the routing from Minnetonka to Eden Prairie jumps the tracks, so to speak? Hennepin County owns existing rail-bed right of way all the way out to Chaska.

      A cursory look at the route shows an abrupt turn to the south off that existing right of way and a strange jog back east to accommodate United Healthcare’s gigantic new campus* and Supervalu’s existing Golden Triangle facility, among others.

      United Healthcare bought that land in relatively recent history — over 60 acres. It’s now valued at will over $100 million, and they only built on less than 20% of it.

      It’s easy to guess whose lobbyists have been quietly greasing the skids for this alignment, despite its ridiculous expense.

      Sure, a rail line should serve areas needed, but at the same time, return on investment needs to be considered. If building a line is so expensive, especially when funded by taxes and benefiting private industry most, perhaps building elsewhere is a better idea. Businesses and people who want to be near the route will move there eventually.

  2. Submitted by Frank Lorenz on 06/19/2015 - 12:43 pm.

    SWLRT POLITICAL FOOD FIGHTS

    A. Paragraph #2 Error. SWLRT does NOT run thru any part of Edina.
    B. The mayor of Eden Prairie needs a refresher course in map reading. She says “all the jobs are in MPLS and Eden Prairie. Thus she ignores the entire Opus Office Park which contains United Health Care Inc’s massive HQ building and two separate divisional buildings. Total employment about 8,000,plus all the other employees in Opus.
    .C. The 21st Street Station (MPLS) is unnecessary. Wealthy Kenilworth residents won’t ride LRT. They drive huge Mercedes SUVs or are chauffeured to work in limos. The argument that poor people from south MPLS will bus along Franklin Ave. to the station to ride LRT to good jobs in Eden prairie is nonsense. The is a 9,500 person colony of recent immigrants in public housing in Eden Prairie. They are currently filling ALL the low skill, low wage jobs in Eden Prairie.
    D. The $341 Million in cost increases is an iceberg tip. IF the line is built, residents of Kenilworth will sue Met Council for $300 Million as a government taking, arguing their property values have been cut in half by noise and congestion. They will win those lawsuits because of case law, but mainly because they are rich and politically connected to the courts. Then scores of commercial property owners along the line will sue Met Counsel for $500 Million arguing the same diminuation of value on their office and apartments buildings. They will win their law suits for the same reasons mentioned above. So the line will cost $800 Million more and the Feds will not pay one penny of that. SWLRT will lose at least $20 Million every year going forward.
    E. Fare cheating is rampant on the Blue and now Green Lines. 6,000 riders a day aren’t paying their fare. MN ‘Nice” is dead. Our LRT lines will have to add turnstiles like NYC and Chicago.

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/26/2015 - 04:01 pm.

      Mercedes SUVs?

      Funny, I have some good friends who live near Kenilworth in Kenwood, and they drive a Prius. They were also in favor of letting the LRT share the freight rail line. It’s about a block from their house, so they’ve clearly got skin in the game. Your characterization of people near Kenilworth is clearly wrong.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/19/2015 - 12:49 pm.

    No, it isn’t

    “…This is not Seattle, Portland, Denver and Berlin.”

    No, it isn’t, but it should be.

    From the standpoint of moving people, not just automobiles, the Twin Cities need far more light rail, as well as expanded options like bus rapid transit and commuter rail, to avoid choking on its own exhaust fumes, not to mention the effects of traffic tie-ups and crashes on the lives of those directly affected. The only way to build enough lanes to handle the current rush hours involves paving most of the 7-county metro area. No, thank you. There are far better, more environmentally-sustainable, economically-equitable and friendly solutions.

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/19/2015 - 01:06 pm.

    Maybe that’s just the cost

    Cutting stations defeats part of the line’s purpose. How do we know $2 billion isn’t just some psychological barrier rather than a truly high cost. Maybe it’s a bargain. How do we know?

    Instead of trying to cut costs to make the project unreasonably cheap, might make sense to accept that $2 billion is the cost of a line between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.

  5. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/19/2015 - 01:16 pm.

    Bass ackwards seems to be the rule when it comes to planning and implementation of these regional mass transit projects in the Metro.

    If federal funding for them depended more on a successful system that delivered what it was designed to do, the process would be shorter and costs would not spiral out of control as it has for virtually all of our projects. Meeting local needs while jumping through federal hoops should be a thing of the past.

    We would have had the whole system for less than the cost of the last two lines if we had not been forced into silly choices for alignments based on false cost cases and provincial frivolities. Practically the whole of the urban lines could be underground, just like the nearly two miles of the Blue Line under the MSP Airport.

  6. Submitted by William Anderson on 06/19/2015 - 02:18 pm.

    Let’s be accurate, Minneapolis was forced to accept a route it did not want, and then to accept co-location of freight and light rail, its only condition of its original knuckling under, under the Met Council threat of not giving funding for proposed street cars in Minneapolis during closed door negotiations last summer.

    The importance of a good route for economic development was essential for Eden Prairie to agree to SWLRT at all, and the reason for the first $300 million bump-up to move the route off their HCRRA trail, going from the initial $900 million budget to $1.2 billion budget. Now the cost of that route change is compounded.

    As reported by Callagan:

    “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.”

    The ‘additional costs’, not surprising for EP Mayor, are to accommodate putting rail over wetlands required due to the route change. All presided over by Hennepin County as a reasonable plan. Are the increased costs a surprise or not? Is someone poor at their engineering job or is someone good at not disclosing information?

    Nice to have the Met Council and its derivative, the SPO Mgr. Mark Fuhrman run interference for Eden Prairie and not reveal the size of the increased costs for the better economic development potential of the EP route change. Similar needs for a route that supports economic development must not exist in Minneapolis, or, do they, but are simply invisible when the players with the power mainly reside outside the city. As noted in the article, the suburbs have a majority on the Met Council.

    Let’s review: First people flee the city for decades to live in large, well appointed homes on spacious nature like lots, Second, they want to continue to have the best jobs in the city, Third, why should they bear the costs of their decisions?

    Surprisingly, actually, that Minneapolis is simply ‘resentful’ and not, outraged.

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/26/2015 - 04:07 pm.

      Well said

      Thank you for the additional information about the Eden Prairie “deviation” costs. Also thanks for pointing out that if a politician like the Eden Prairie mayor could figure out that deviating off the HCRRA trail and through a wetland was going to have some “surprise” extra costs, then clearly Hennepin County and Met Council would have known that was the case long ago, as well.

      It really does look like the fix was in, with wealthy and powerful business interests in and near Eden Prairie dictating costly alignments and hiding costs — and doing their best, apparently, to make Minneapolis the scapegoat.

  7. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 06/19/2015 - 02:27 pm.

    Mpls jobs and Eden Prairie jobs are not equal land use

    So there are lots of jobs in diffuse office parks in Eden Prairie, in unwalkable suburban geographies of nowhere. How exactly will LRT compliment that walking-hostile (and thus transit-hostile) land use? These are the facts on the ground. Yet they are being ignored by everyone except Wagenius and the two mentioned legislators.

    Look at our existing transit projects in the region: Drive-up land use served by transit has been expensive at best and a complete failure at worst. Yet walk-up land uses served by transit, such as the Green Line, have outshined even the rosiest estimates.

    Let’s learn from past projects – land use is the critical element that makes or breaks a project, and E.P. just doesn’t cut it when it comes to transit-compatibility of its land use.

    We can always extend it to E.P. once the city makes significant steps to be more walkable and dense, especially around planned SWLRT stations. But land use needs to beget transit investment, not the other way around.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2015 - 10:11 am.

    Yes, let’s be accurate… poor poor MPLS

    Which city got the first LRT in the state? Which city already has $3 billion worth of LRT up and running within it’s borders? Which city added $100 million worth or duplicate studies to the SWLRT cost and got another $150 million tunnel and other mitigation costs out of the deal? Yes, that would be poor poor MPLS being stomped by all it’s suburban neighbors who are turning into a regional transit hub and destination at their own expense. Oh the injustice of it all.

    Let’s be clear, were it up to MPLS we’d be spending $300 million more either because we’d be tunneling under uptown or digging a deep tunnel under Kenilworth while relocating the freight rail in any event. For some reason it’s Okie Dokie for MPLS to tack on hundreds of millions of dollars but if Eden Prairie does it it’s an outrage upon all this is right with the universe?

    There was NEVER any agreement to build a two story berm and demolish 50+ properties in St. Louis Park in order to relocated the freight rail out of Kenilworth; so let’s please stop whining about the deal that never existed. Kenilworth has been a rail corridor for over 100 years, putting a trains inside an existing rail corridor isn’t violation of common sense, on the contrary.

    If MPLS really thinks it’s a great idea to break down which city is spiking the costs they’re not being very smart. MPLS has racked up more expenses than any other city and would rack up even more with a deep tunnel, or a different route, and the relocation of the freight rail if they had their way.

    The mayor of Eden Prairie practically volunteers to eliminate stations while MPLS is still whining about a freight deal that never existed and threatening lawsuits for a deep tunnel.

    And while we’re at it let’s look into the fact that for some reason poor MPLS has hundred of millions of dollars to throw at privately owned billionaire sports franchises and their stadiums and arenas; but can’t scratch up a dime here or there for it’s own transit systems? I didn’t think it was possible for an entire city to behave like a spoiled brat but there you have it.

    I don’t begrudge MPLS the mitigation we’ve already agreed to, nor do resent them objecting to eliminating mitigation’s we’ve already agreed upon. MPLS is a beautiful city and love it, and I don’t mind paying it. But this attempt to portray itself as some kind of “victim” of suburban malice is annoying and counterproductive. This is urban chauvinism pretending to be regional thinking and it’s getting old.

    One thing I am genuinely puzzled by however is that 21st street station. MPLS, the local millionaire residents along the corridor, AND the Park Board, have ALL expressed their preference for eliminating that station in lieu of a deep tunnel. Obviously that station isn’t a priority for MPLS. I honestly don’t know who that station would serve other maybe people trying to get to the Cedar Lake beach or maybe Lake of the Isles. I thought MPLS was going to shut that beach down anyways and I don’t see the local children trading in the school bus service to their front doors for a train ride out to Breck School in Hopkins. So is MPLS fighting to keep that station just out of spite at this point?

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/26/2015 - 04:15 pm.

      Why continue to subsidize EP’s failure?

      The plain economic facts are that suburban sprawl in the style of Eden Prairie is a financial train wreck. It’s unsupportable in the long run. It’s always been grossly subsidized by more urban cities.

      Why should we continue doing what does not work and expect it to have different results? In 20 to 30 years, I predict Eden Prairie will be declaring bankruptcy, unless the state bails them out, or they vastly change their land use policies very soon.

  9. Submitted by Mary Gustafson on 06/22/2015 - 12:05 pm.

    Scratching Up Funding

    Remember that there was a proposal in the legislature for a 1/2 cent sales tax in the Cities to pay for transit improvements and which would also have covered the State’s share of the SWLRT. However, that was voted down by the legislature and instead a “lights on” transportation bill was put in place. Although I live in the five-county metro area and not Minneapolis itself, I would be glad to pay an extra 1/2 cent sales tax anywhere in my area and while I’m working downtown. I think we should be able to decide to tax ourselves but maybe I’m not familiar enough with how our State government works to understand why it has to go through them.

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