Options narrowed for Southwest LRT cost savings

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens and Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider listening to various speakers during Wednesday's meeting.

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.

Scenarios under consideration
Metropolitan Council
Scenarios under consideration
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.

Scenario C and Alt C
Metropolitan Council
Scenario C and Alt C
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.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/26/2015 - 09:46 am.

    MPLS “sacrifices”?

    I get tired of MPLS leaders whining about their alleged “sacrifices”. They’ve already gotten $3 billion worth of LRT while on the way toward being the regions primary transit hub. One train that currently runs in a 100 year old rail corridor is staying in that rail corridor while another (LRT) is being added, and no demolition of any homes or businesses is required for that route. We’re spending upwards of $150 million on tunnels and other mitigations… poor MPLS, oh the “sacrifice”.

    I think the mitigations, shallow tunnel etc. for MPLS are appropriate and necessary so I support them and I don’t complain about paying for them… but this whining about “sacrifice” is way past it expiration date.

    As for the “equity” Mayor, I guess she and other MPLS “leaders” must think that dumping hundreds of millions of MPLS dollars into stadiums and arena’s for privately owned professional sports franchises somehow brings equity to the poor residents North and near North MPLS. I had no idea Ziggy Wilf lives in North MPLS? The Park Board is short $170 million and city “leaders” are trying to figure out how to get a pro soccer stadium built… that’s equity for you… that’s what North MPLS needs… another stadium downtown. It’s nice to see MPLS city leaders finally taking “equity” so seriously.

    A city is entitled to fight for it’s transit features so that’s not a problem, but I remind everyone, beyond the fare’s it’s residents pay for transit (if they use it) and their share of the Henn. Co. taxes, the City of MPLS contributes not one dime to it’s transit, equity or not. So please let’s give this “sacrifice” narrative a rest.

    Meanwhile when did MPLS decide it absolutely HAS to have that 21st station? They’ve spent two years fighting for a “deep” tunnel that would have eliminated it, so why now can’t they live without it? Just asking.

    A bridge for the bike trail would be nice, but the trail’s at grade now, we can live with it.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 06/26/2015 - 11:39 am.

      Misleading

      Paul, those agreements regarding stadium funding deal (which for the record I think was an awful idea) were made under previous leadership. It’s a bit disingenuous to try to make a point with that when it was an inherited problem and a legal deal already in place that she couldn’t walk back.

      Regarding your other points:
      -Minneapolis is the most populous city in Hennepin county and its residents contribute heavily to the pools of tax money used to fund these transit lines. It is underrepresented on both the Met Council and within the Hennepin County commissioners with regards to population (and most likely tax contribution as well). These bodies are stacked to give a disproportionate say to the suburbanized areas with regards to their actual population and tax contribution.
      -Mitigations are nice, but a route that actually properly served the residents of the city instead of making a bee-line for the burbs while avoiding transit-dependent parts of town would be nicer. Removing what sad concessions the city won for accepting what was essentially a lie regarding rerouting freight rail should result in trashing this entire awful alignment and starting from scratch.
      -I think the 21st St station is a little daft, but considering how little benefit the city would get from this routing they probably needed everything they could get to justify accepting it
      -The bike trail is currently an at-grade crossing, but the freight traffic it crosses is minimal. The frequency of a new LRT line dramatically changes that situation, and considering the really high level of bike traffic this trail gets you’re creating a problem by increasing the cross-traffic that much without looking at grade-separation. We have lower traffic grade separation elsewhere, so why is this somehow more acceptable to leave in a bad state?

      Also I just wanted to point out that the main ‘sacrifices’ the city is talking about is losing the few actual stations it has in this plan so we can instead build a train through wetlands to serve people who are a transit opt-out and will continue to be so even with train service that beats anything available in most of the city (you know, where densities exist that can actually support transit).

  2. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 06/26/2015 - 11:23 am.

    Don’t back down, Minnapolis

    I really hope Hodges and the city council isn’t just bluffing and will be willing to follow through with denying municipal consent if they continue to make this more and more unpalatable to the city. The line does very little for the actual residents of Minneapolis and has a huge host of pitfalls. If the trade-offs made to get consent are rolled back, so too should our consent to this routing.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/26/2015 - 10:59 pm.

    Urban Chauvinism

    Wayne,

    The agreement on the Kenilworth route and the non-agreement to move the freight line also pre-date the current administration. You can pick and choose your historical responsibilities if you want but it strikes most people as disingenuous to threaten to re-visit agreements that never existed while placing other “deals” out of reach as “prior” agreements.

    Regardless of stadium deals the myth of equity remains, you’re alternate route down Nicollet would put “equity” completely beyond reach of North and near North MPLS residents. It’s clear that MPLS leaders like to talk about “equity” when they think it gains some political purchase, but at the end of the day it’s millionaire home owner in Kenwood not working people on the North side that get the “equity”. How much “equity” would a deep tunnel or a relocated freight line deliver unto the lucky residents of North MPLS? Whatever.

    The claim that all the political clout is lined up for the suburbs is ridiculous. MPLS is a big city but it only contains 10% of the metro population. Nevertheless MPLS gets far more county and state money than any other city. From their parks to their LGA MPLS is the largest recipient in the state. MPLS receives more than it contributes to it’s transit not just from surrounding cities and counties, but from the entire state. Again, who else already has $3 billion worth of LRT up and running in their city?

    Most of us recognize that MPLS is a great city and we want it to be so. But this anti-suburban urban chauvinism is getting to be as tedious as the claims of “sacrifice”. The fact is MPLS has neither the population or tax base to win a rock fight, yet they’re the only ones threatening to start one.

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