The officials charged with making cuts to the planned Southwest light rail project are getting closer to making their final recommendations.
That’s not to say the job is getting easier.
After another three-hour meeting Wednesday, the project’s Corridor Management Committee narrowed the array of cuts they’re considering — an effort aimed at coming up with $341 million in savings for the project, whose projected price tag has ballooned to nearly $2 billion.
The committee still has hard choices to make, decisions that continue to focus mostly on the two ends of the 16-mile extension: in Eden Prairie and in downtown Minneapolis, where the route links up with the existing Green Line.
Eden Prairie offers the biggest potential for savings, while Minneapolis offers the biggest political challenges. That situation was amplified again Wednesday, when an idea was floated to make the southern terminus of the line Eden Prairie Town Center — a move that would save enough money for officials from towns along the line to “buy back” some of the other cuts being proposed.
That would go a long way toward softening objections from places like Hopkins, which worries that cuts to park-and-ride facilities at the Shady Oak station would make it less functional. The move would also benefit Minneapolis, which doesn’t want to lose stations or bike and pedestrian improvements it extracted during the municipal consent process.
A new proposal for Eden Prairie
But even as Metropolitan Council staff and the corridor management committee members considered the Town Center terminus, Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens threw out a new proposal. Rather than eliminate the last two stations of the route— Mitchell Road and Southwest Station — Tyra-Lukens suggested keeping Southwest as the end of the line but eliminating the Town Center Station.
“When we first started looking at this process, we were looking at the ideal,” Tyra-Lukens said. “Now I think we’re realizing we’re not going to have the ideal.”
While she said her City Council doesn’t like any of the cuts, it now thinks ending at Southwest is better since there is already a transit center and parking ramp there. And because Southwest is the middle of the three proposed Eden Prairie stations, it would be the most accessible of the three. There is little opportunity for additional parking at Town Center, or even a drop-off area.
Tyra-Lukens said the Southwest station also better serves the area’s low-income and transit-dependent riders — while keeping the entire line’s ridership high enough to stay qualified for federal matching money.
There’s just one problem with Tyra-Lukens plan, though: It doesn’t save enough money. It would cut the route’s cost by somewhere between $290 million and $320 million; the target is $341 million. That means not only is there no room to retain some so-called “enrichments” — like full development of the Shady Oak station park-and-ride in Hopkins and various bike trail improvements in Minneapolis — but it would require additional cuts.
Any hope that the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) would make up the difference by upping its contribution to Southwest LRT was quashed by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who serves on the CTIB board. That group — which is responsible for levying, and spending, the quarter-cent sales tax collected in five metro area counties for transit enhancements — believes the Southwest LRT budget should be whittled back to the previous $1.66 billion figure. Putting more into light rail would mean less for other regional transit priorities, McLaughlin said.
Minneapolis (mostly) spared
Some of the most severe cuts to Minneapolis appear to be off the table — including the elimination of proposed Royalston and Van White stations. Also seemingly spared: an elevator and stair connection at the Lake Street station. But the city will not be left unscathed. As of now, the likely scenario includes elimination of the Penn Avenue Station as well as a $12 million bike-pedestrian bridge that would have carried riders and pedestrians up and over the intersection of the tracks and the Cedar Lake Trail.
But Peter Wagenius, policy director to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, said the committee should have a policy of doing no harm to existing bike and pedestrian trails. Building the bike bridge on Cedar Lake Trail was part of the mitigation agreement that was given in exchange for Minneapolis reluctantly accepting co-location of freight rail and light rail through the Kenilworth Corridor.
Without the bridge, the popular bike trail would be slowed with an at-grade crossing controlled by gates and lights. “There are more riders at this point in the trail than ride the Northstar commuter rail line,” Wagenius said. “That’s a lot of people.”
McLaughlin objected to suggestions that the construction of light rail throughout the region hasn’t included significant investments in bike infrastructure. And he said there might be other grants available to complete bike and pedestrian projects that might be cut from the light rail budget. “We’re trying to get to a reasonable balance here,” McLaughlin said.
Letter outlines city’s objections
Hodges, who has not taken part in the budget-cutting meetings of the Corridor Management Committee, sent a letter to Met Council Chair Adam Duininck and the other members of the committee last week. Released to the public on Wednesday, the letter outlines the city’s concerns with the process and the possible outcomes of the budget-cutting exercise. The city has already sacrificed a lot, the letter stated, and it complains that many of the cuts proposed for Minneapolis came not from Met Council staff but from other cities along the route and Hennepin County.
Several of those cuts contradict earlier assertions by the county that routing the train through the Kenilworth Corridor rather than on Nicollet Avenue would better serve low-income and minority populations in North Minneapolis — the so-called equity train. But cutting stations that might serve those populations not only reduces the equity aspects but also goes back on a mediated deal between the Met Council and the city that led to the city approving municipal consent last fall.
“The list of potential cuts, like the process to develop it, is driven not by objective criteria — since none were ever identified — but by politics,” the letter stated. The city’s support for the project is now contingent on the Met Council keeping all agreements made in mediation and the maintaining of “the elements that make it a real equity train” including not only stations but the bus connections between North Minneapolis and those stations.
The city can be outvoted on the Corridor Management Committee and the Met Council, but state law gives it authority to approve or disapprove the alignment through the city. A rejection by the City Council would likely kill the project. This “municipal consent” will be required for each city where the new alignment makes significant changes such as elimination of stations.
The Corridor Management Committee will meet again July 1, when it must agree on a final budget and alignment to recommend to the Met Council. The regional body then will meet July 8 to give final approval to the plan, or to amend it. Met Council staff must then present the new alignment and budget to the Federal Transit Administration by the end of summer.