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Parallel tracks: Can the Twin Cities build two light rail projects at once?

After numerous delays, the schedules to complete Southwest LRT and the Bottineau Line are now converging. Is Metro Transit capable of building the massive projects simultaneously? 

For parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020, Metro Transit could be building the two lines simultaneously.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

For years, people in the Twin Cities debated — and debated — whether the region should build two additional light rail transit lines.

Now, thanks to two recent milestones, a different question has emerged: Not whether they should be built. But whether they can be built.

Once years apart, both the Southwest Light Rail Transit and the Bottineau Line are now on nearly parallel tracks. If they continue to clear the many planning and money hurdles — Bottineau, for one, still has to secure $149 million in nonfederal funding — they will both begin passenger service about eight months apart in 2021. That means that for parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020, Metro Transit could be building the two lines simultaneously. (That’s in addition to the C Line, the region’s second arterial bus rapid transit line, which could be under construction in the same time period.)

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Taken together, the $1.858 billion, 14.5-mile Southwest LRT and the $1.54 billion, 13.5-mile Bottineau Line are larger in size and scope than the St. Croix Crossings bridge and U.S. Bank Stadium, which also shared a construction timetable.

“Do we have the horses to do this — the human resources and raw materials to pull this off?” asked Metropolitan Council Member Steven Chavez at last week’s council meeting. “We’ve been successful so far, but the real test is going to come when we have two projects occurring simultaneously.

“So, get on your horse and hang on,” Chavez suggested.

Two at a time?

The two key milestones reached last month were the complex deal to complete local funding for Southwest LRT and federal approval of the environmental review of the Bottineau Line. As a result, the timelines for both projects are now staggered by less than nine months. Met Council Regional Administrator Wes Kooistra called the near synchronization of schedules “a fun challenge but it’s going to be a challenge nonetheless.”

The region has so far only built two light rail lines: the Blue Line, which runs from Target Field to the Mall of America and was completed in 2004; and the Green Line, which goes from Target Field to St. Paul’s Union Depot and opened in 2014.

The projects were hard enough taken one at a time. How about two at a time?

“We have anticipated that,” said Metro Transit’s Deputy General Manager Mark Fuhrmann, who directs the light rail program. “We have staffed up and will continue to staff up as we approach construction.

“The Federal Transit Administration has looked at our technical capacity and they find us fit to be able to deliver two projects,” Fuhrmann said.

FTA staff in Washington, D.C., said it requires applicants like Metro Transit to show not only how they would build both projects but also operate and maintain them while keeping existing transit services intact. That analysis is one of several that determine whether given projects are recommended to be included in the president’s transportation request.

Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said he thinks the agency can handle both projects at once. “If they were our first two projects I’d have more reservations,” Duininck said.

Detail of a map showing Blue and Green Line extensions.
Metro Transit
Detail of a map showing Blue and Green Line extensions.

Key staff members on both projects were involved in the Blue Line and Green Line and others, Fuhrmann especially, came to Metro Transit after working on  light rail projects in other regions.

And what is new to the Twin Cities is routine in other cities. Fuhrmann said he was working in Washington, D.C., while it was building four lines at once. Salt Lake City completed four mass transit projects within the last 24 months. The Puget Sound region of Washington just completed two extensions and continues to work on two more. And Denver opened two rail lines this year and is expected to open two more by year’s end.

“It’s a high-quality problem to have,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who was a backer of light rail well before the first line was finally built. “No question it is a management challenge, a human resources challenge. But I think we’re up to it. If Denver can handle it, we can handle it.”

Fuhrmann said the two lines could take advantage of an opening in the region’s recent construction boom. The Vikings stadium project is completed and the structural work on the St. Croix Crossing bridge will be completed over the next few months. In addition, the same legislative impasse over transportation funding that almost killed Southwest LRT has slowed highway and bridge work by Minnesota Department of Transportation. “There’s really a window of opportunity here for LRT to step through and appeal to the contracting community,” he said. “The contracting community is going to be hungry for work.”

Fuhrmann said once Southwest funding was completed, he began hearing from regional, national and international contracting firms. “We believe, and my conversations with construction companies is that, yes, they can mobilize their equipment and secure the resources to build these big projects,” Fuhrmann said.

At its peak, the Central Corridor construction employed 2,500 workers with similar numbers expected for each of the Bottineau and Southwest projects.

Delays create bottleneck 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just two years ago, Southwest LRT — which will extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie — had a timeline with passenger service beginning in 2019. A change in alignment, however, required a supplemental environmental impact statement and a second round of municipal consent by local governments that caused a delay. So did legal challenges from residents who lived along the line, and a threatened challenge by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. Cost overruns also resulted in a project timeout, which allowed political leaders to reduce the cost and scope of the line. Finally, a funding battle in the Legislature — a fight that was never resolved — added more months to the timeline.

Bottineau, which will extend the Blue Line from Target Field to Brooklyn Park, has had its own delays, and its projected completion has been moved from 2020 to 2021. But it has not faced the legal or environmental challenges that its Southwest sibling has. And it is the first project in this region facing updated Federal Transit Administration rules, which require the completion of the project’s application within two years of getting the OK to enter development.

“Frankly, [the new rules are] to have fewer projects like Southwest LRT that meander in project development forever and don’t go anywhere,” said Duininck. “It’s a timeline they wanted us to be on and to hit that mark is an accomplishment.”

Plenty of obstacles remain

Earlier this year, when Gov. Mark Dayton triggered a plan to bypass the state Legislature and come up with the final funding piece from other sources, Southwest LRT was revived from near death. The votes of Hennepin County, the Counties Transportation Improvement Board and the Met Council came just days before the project office was to begin closing up operations.

While the funding now seems assured, project managers still have work to do. Probably around Thanksgiving, the project is expecting to receive approval from the federal government to enter the engineering phase. It is at that point that the federal share of the project’s total cost — $929 million or 50 percent of the budget — will be locked in. Any cost increases that would come after that would not be shared by the federal government.

The project also needs to negotiate a series of agreements with three railroads: the Canadian Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Twin Cities and Western. Those agreements will involve the purchase of some spur lines, compensation for any use of right of way and protocols for construction and shared use once the light rail lines are complete.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck

The agreements must be secured before Metro Transit can make application for what is termed the full-funding grant agreement with the FTA. Managers hope to complete that application in early 2017 and receive the funding commitment by next summer with work starting shortly thereafter.

There is still a significant legal issue facing Southwest LRT. But whether it is a hurdle is unclear. In August of 2015, U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim ruled that the Lakes and Parks Alliance hadn’t proved that the Met Council violated state and federal environmental laws by not being open to alternate alignments. The group, led by residents who live along the preferred route, had argued that the Met Council skewed the results of the environmental review to favor the alignment that co-located LRT and freight rail through the Kenilworth Corridor.

But Tunheim held on to the case pending the completion of the environmental review. He added that the budget-cutting process, along with the second round of municipal consent, “should provide the searching analysis in order to comply” with environmental law.

With the environmental process now complete, the parties now expect Tunheim to, as he wrote in his ruling, “once again consider summary judgement,” though Met Council officials expect a dismissal.

“The feds closely monitor any active litigation, but the feds don’t stop these projects due to that litigation,” said Fuhrmann. “Otherwise there’d never be a new start project built in America ever again.”

Bottineau remains behind Southwest, though it has closed the gap. It stands at 30 percent engineering completed, while Southwest is at 90 percent. It’s managers also must negotiate with BNSF to purchase the right of way that will carry the line for the segment between Olson Memorial Highway to near I-694. But with the approval in September of the environmental work and the Met Council’s approval of the project’s final scope and budget, project staff can now apply for FTA permission to enter the engineering phase, which — if approved — would start in early 2017.

“Every project in the nation that has entered into engineering has been built,” Duininck said. That makes the Met Council less worried about a change of administration. “Once a project gets to a certain point in the FTA process, they aren’t as political on the national level.”

County vs. county? 

Local politics are a different story. Bottineau’s biggest issue is the same one that nearly killed Southwest. It, too, needs to secure the final 10 percent of project costs, and faces the same political impasse that kept the state Legislature from providing that money. Republicans in the Minnesota House remain opposed to light rail expansion, considering it more expensive than it is worth to the metro’s transportation system. They have also been immune to calls for a deal that would fund both light rail and roads and bridges.

As with Southwest, Bottineau cannot apply for a full-funding grant agreement until it has its local match in place — 51 percent in its case, to comply with changes in federal rules that give precedence to projects seeking less than a 50 percent federal match.

“In about six weeks, we’ll know with a little more clarity,” said Fuhrmann, in reference to the November election.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat
County Commissioner Mike Opat

But absent the Legislature’s participation — either the appropriation of the final 10 percent cost of Bottineau or approval of a Dayton plan to increase the regional transit sales tax to provide the funding matches — Duininck will again have to look elsewhere for the money.

The other regional funding partners, however — the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority, CTIB and the Met Council — have less flexibility after ponying up the final funding piece for Southwest when the Legislature didn’t agree to do so.

Even so, before casting what he termed an “ulcer-inducing vote,” Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat put his fellow commissioners on notice that he expected the same level of effort if Bottineau faces a similar funding crisis. “If we care about disparities, if we care about transit as the great equalizer, we will be every bit as creative with Bottineau — if not more so — as we are with this line,” Opat said.

Regional tensions may also become an issue. Before CTIB approved the Southwest LRT funding deal, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega pointed to a slide laying out the region’s transit vision and said “as far as I’m concerned, that vision only applies to the west Metro area.” Ortega said. CTIB’s current finances don’t appear to be capable to build LRT and BRT lines in the east Metro.

“We can’t continue to say we’ll fix it tomorrow,” he said.

Dakota County, one of the five funding partners in CTIB, recently voted to pull out of the group. County commissioners there said the county pays more into CTIB than it gets back in transit projects. The county’s contribution to CTIB — money collected from a quarter-cent sales tax and a motor vehicle excise tax — will stop flowing in three years.

While Duininck expresses high confidence in Metro Transit staff and the contracting community, he has less confidence in what he terms “the things I have less control over.

“That is the legislative appetite for transit as well as the tensions in the region,” Duininck said. “How do we build a transit system that makes sense for the region, that makes sense for the land use of the region, that doesn’t become a way to pit county against county, pit cities against each other?

“Hopefully the decision gets made next spring,” he said. “If not, we’ll cross that bridge to see what it means for Bottineau and the other extensions.”