Everything is awesome! Southwest LRT officials make the case that the project isn’t the smoldering tire fire so many assume

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Metro Transit Deputy General Manager Mark Fuhrmann explaining the recently adopted federal budget for transit programs.

The people responsible for keeping Southwest Light Rail Transit moving forward think the $1.858 billion project is getting a bad rap.

And after weathering yet another stretch of seeming setbacks and new hurdles, the Metropolitan Council and elected officials from governments along the route are trying to change the narrative of Southwest LRT as a project in peril.

Those officials point out that within the last month, the project has won a longstanding lawsuit by opponents; produced another environmental review (triggered in part by new demands from the BNSF railroad); resolved a conflict with another railroad over demands for sharing right of way; and witnessed the passage of a federal transit budget that set a record for its generosity toward light rail funding.

“Earlier this year, the president’s budget had proposed to eliminate the (Capital Investment Grants) program entirely and Congress acted to not only fund the program but to give it an all-time-high appropriation, a record high,” said Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff at a Wednesday meeting of state and local government officials who help direct SWLRT.

In fact, things are going so well that Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the backers of the project need to brag a bit more. “One of our jobs is to be upbeat and tell the story,” McLaughlin said.

He also offered a bit of a history lesson. While SWLRT has suffered numerous setbacks and continues to have critics, he said, there were similar headaches with the region’s first light rail project — originally known as the Hiawatha Line — between downtown Minneapolis and the airport.

“Hiawatha was called the train to nowhere until it opened up,” he said. “Now there’s a hell of a lot of people going to nowhere everyday.”

Light rail doomed under Trump? Not so much.

Next week, a delegation that includes members of the Met Council, local government officials, and Twin Cities business community will make a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to make the case to the federal government that the project is back on track.

“We still need the appropriation from the FTA, and I think it is important for us to demonstrate that we’re ready,” Tchourumoff said. “And with the number of milestones we have hit just here in the last couple of weeks we need to be able to tick off those milestones.”

Trump’s budget proposal — or, rather, his lack of a budget for new rail and streetcar lines — has driven much of the media coverage, thanks in no small part to a narrative pushed by interest groups. With Trump in the White House, the story went, light rail was doomed.

But as with Trump’s first supplemental budget and first annual budget, Congress ignored the administration and continued a deal dating back to the Reagan administration to provide certain percentages of transportation money to transit.

FTA Capital Investment Grant Program Federal Funding Levels 2010 to 2018
Corridor Management Committee
FTA Capital Investment Grant Program Federal Funding Levels 2010 to 2018 (horizontal axis represents federal fiscal years)

The federal budget that passed with bipartisan votes and was signed by Trump earlier this month follows that same pattern. Included are buckets of money for what are called “New Starts,” such as the SWLRT to Eden Prairie, the Bottineau Line to Brooklyn Park and the Gold Line bus rapid transit line between St. Paul and Woodbury as well as “Small Starts” including the Orange Line BRT between Lakeville and Minneapolis. All were cited in a February FTA report on projects that are in line for federal funding, though the document followed the White House stance of requesting no money for new projects.

Both New Starts and Small Starts not only received more money than was expected, the budget also contained specific language directing the FTA to spend the money, language Tchourumoff said was intended to make it difficult for a Trump FTA to not reach agreements with local transit agencies and not distribute the money.

While the bulk of the New Starts money is to go to projects already under construction, $401 million is set aside for the five projects in line for full-funding grant agreements in the next year. Two of those are SWLRT and the Bottineau Line, with the others being projects in Santa Ana, California; Seattle; and Durham, North Carolina.

If it’s Tuesday, the Minnesota Legislature is trying to kill Southwest LRT

The good news is tempered by a series of bills and proposals from Republicans in the Legislature to block construction of SWLRT.

Since the 2017 session, when similar bills were eventually blocked by Gov. Mark Dayton, the shares of nonfederal funding for the project have changed. The state is no longer being asked to cover part of the construction (though it will be asked to maintain its 50 percent share of operating funds, similar to the share it carries for the existing Blue Line and Green Line).

Today, through an increased county sales tax , Hennepin County is now the only nonfederal funder of the project.

Hopkins City Council Member Jason Gadd and Minneapolis Mayor Jason Frey
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Hopkins City Council Member Jason Gadd and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey shown during Wednesday’s meeting.

That, however, hasn’t ended efforts at the Capitol to kill the project. One bill would allow Plymouth and Maple Grove to request half of the increased sales tax collected there and use it for highway projects. That would reduce the funds available for projects like SWLRT and Bottineau.

Another bill would ban colocation of freight and passenger rail, something that is being planned for both light rail projects.

“Even though Southwest is no longer looking for state funding and doesn’t really need any state support … we are still continuing to see attempts to stop the project,” Tchourumoff said.

A series of unfortunate events

SWLRT backers are trying to be upbeat not because they deny having had a rough period but because they think they’ve survived it. Project managers had hoped to be starting some construction work in the fall of 2017. But then a series of setbacks arose that have set the often-delayed project back by a year.

The first setback came when Metro Transit received the initial bids on the largest single contract: the civil construction work that includes track, stations, parking lots, a parking ramp, retaining walls, bridges, pedestrian tunnels and two light rail tunnels. All four bids were rejected because they were too high, and all bidders were disqualified because they didn’t follow state bidding rules when they all included subcontractors who had helped design the project. New bids for the civil construction work are now expected to be opened in May.

If the bids come in close to what the project staff thinks is reasonable, a winner might be awarded in August. And even though the Met Council isn’t anticipating receiving a full-funding grant agreement from the FTA until 2019, federal rules allow work to begin before that — if the FTA agrees. So while full construction wouldn’t start until spring of 2019, some work could be done this fall, with passengers possibly riding the 14.5 mile extension in 2023.

There were also onerous demands by the BNSF railroad to build a one-mile collision wall to separate passenger rail from freight rail. Not only would the design of such a wall take time, but Southwest LRT project staffers were ordered by the FTA to conduct further environmental review. That process should also be completed in May.

The Met Council also seems to have headed off demands by the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, requests the project staff considered excessive. TC & W doesn’t own the tracks through the Kenilworth Corridor or the trackage south of it known as the Bass Lake Spur. That right of way is to be owned by the Met Council. But TC & W had some leverage because project staff had wanted it to serve as the common carrier under federal law, a designation that would make it responsible for assuring that the tracks would be available to any shipper needing to use them.

When a deal couldn’t be struck, the Met Council asked Hennepin County and the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority to take over common carrier responsibilities. (The Met Council didn’t take on the responsibility itself because it didn’t think it had legal authority under state law to do so.)

SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander said the change in common carrier designation was “inside baseball” and didn’t change the construction process at all. But being pressured to change the arrangement led to some frustration by Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who referred to it as “bureaucratic gymnastics.”

“We take on these hugely complicated things and then we discuss them for five minutes like it’s no big deal,” Opat said at a commission meeting in early March. “It’s not a five-minute proposition.”

Met Council Chair Tchourumoff, Commissioner McLaughlin, Mayor Hovland
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Edina Mayor James Hovland, right, during Wednesday’s meeting as Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin look on.

Of the SLWRT project in general, Opat said: “There’s a steady drip, drip, drip of accommodations we need to make to keep this going and they’re all time intensive and they’re all staff intensive.”

On Wednesday, Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison acknowledged the lengthy process, but said Southwest LRT would be worth it in the end. “These are hugely complicated projects and this one is more complicated that we wish it were sometimes,” she said.

But about that price tag …

The official budget for the 15-station extension of the existing Green Line is $1.858 billion. If a full-funding grant agreement is reached, the federal government will cover half of that: $929 million. But that budget was set in 2016. And because it was the budget amount when the FTA authorized the Met Council to enter the final phase of engineering, it is the maximum the feds will pay.

So any increases caused by unforeseen costs (hello, collision walls) or inflation — a figure Metro Transit’s Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees the Southwest LRT project, estimates to be $1 million a week — will have to be resolved locally. And the only source of additional funding is Hennepin County or the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority.

“Those are questions that we can work through with more definity once we open those civil bids,” Fuhrmann said. “It may be a combination of doing some budget adjustments, it may be looking at some additional funding slash contingency. But we’re not able to quantify any of that until we see where we sit with the bid opening.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Nathan Bakken on 03/29/2018 - 11:30 am.

    Let’s keep the momentum going!

    Build out our regional LRT and BRT system. Lets not fall behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/29/2018 - 11:40 am.

    Curious

    Republican legislators must be getting huge campaign contributions from pavement contractors and automobile dealers. With the state’s share of operating costs for SWLT being far, far less than money spent on road construction and maintenance over the years, I can only conclude that they decided as children “I like cars better than trains,” and no amount of environmental science or transportation fact will sway them from that view.

    LIght rail travel numbers never match what Republican legislators think they’d have to be in order to justify the cost of the project because A) those legislators are ideologically opposed to rail transit to begin with; and B) virtually all of the people-moving propaganda and advertising in the metro area, no matter what the media platform, is for cars and trucks.

    • Submitted by Tim Milner on 03/30/2018 - 09:25 am.

      Not idealistic opposed to rail

      but fundamental opposed to the design and funding mechanism.

      The Metro Green line has 24 stops with a 60 min+ travel time from Downtown St Paul to Downtown Minneapolis. Is that really designed to move people when the express bus between the downtowns takes 25 minutes? People mention Denver and Portland as examples. Yet those cities have far more limited stops – their systems being designed to quickly move people into centralized areas where standard bus service can support final destinations. That’s not our system. Our system, quite honestly, is designed to do almost the exact the same thing we have been doing with buses for generations, only with far more amenities and expenses.

      On the plus side, the Metro Green line has lead to tremendous redevelopment. Which has also generated a substantial amount of new property tax revenue. Should not some of that tax increment revenue be captured for the cost of the system? What about the side effect of all the displaced businesses and people who not longer can afford to be on the Green line route?

      If Hennepin County and the cities on the SW LRT line would offer up the tax increments they will get from the redevelopment resulting from LRT for. lets say 10 years to help pay for it, most Republicans would fall in line as it would substantially reduced the State’s commitment. But trust me, that is NOT going to happen.

      So not against rail – just against poorly thought out design and funding mechanisms.

  3. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 03/29/2018 - 11:46 am.

    You go, SW light rail!

    I have a close relationship with my car(s). I used to suffer separation anxiety when we were in different places. Thus the Blue Line looked like an irrelevant thing to me.

    Little by little, I dared risk auto separation, and rode the rails. I am now a true believer and a frequent rider. Government Center. Target Center. Target Field. Guthrie (plus a short walk). Etc.

    And *then,* along came the Green Line, connecting Blue Liners to St. Paul. Hey, we’d never use that, I thought. Wrong again. Theatre in the Round. University of Minnesota, Williams Arena. University Avenue. The state Capitol. Etc.

    Weekend day pass for a senior is two (2) bucks! Not much more for a junior.

    Light rail is environmentally the best choice. Also a stress-reducer. Traffic reducer. Rush hour beater.

    Spendy to build? Yes. And every year that passes, more $$ to build.

    FYI, I was not asked to write this piece.

    Just do it. You won’t be sorry!

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 03/29/2018 - 11:50 am.

    All projects are not equal

    It’s disgraceful to allocate scarce transit funds to the Gold Line, a project to promote development rather than meet current transit needs.

  5. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 03/29/2018 - 08:54 pm.

    Ghosts from the Past?

    Starting in the 1920s, Minneapolis Planning Dept. staff, perhaps taking a page from the famous “Plan of 1917” for the City of Minneapolis, with it’s many broad avenues cutting diagonally through the city’s neighborhoods, developed plans for four main “diagonal” roadways or “thoroughfares”. In a way, they (almost) all eventually came into being: To the Northwest, we have West Broadway, swinging up towards Robbinsdale; to the Northeast, there’s St. Anthony Boulevard. The Southeast “diagonal” is Hiawatha, of course. It’s interesting that along two of these routes are also either current or proposed LRT lines.

    But the great Southwest “diagonal” or “thoroughfare” never happened. It was planned to follow the same route through the lake district as the current SWLRT. It is true that the lakes are a considerable barrier, but so are the interests of the wealthy residents of this same district. Interests not present with the other thoroughfares.

    Like the Southwest Thoroughfare, the current SWLRT plans have also been years in the mix. Perhaps they will have better luck, but there should be not surprise (or despair) that such matters can take years to resolve.

  6. Submitted by Baron Topor on 03/29/2018 - 11:23 pm.

    What

    It shows how much damage selfish NIMBY’s can do by holding up worthwhile, thoughtful projects with legal expenses and long delays, driving up costs. Ridership numbers may never be as high as projected, but building rail projects is about the long-term picture, and changing people’s habits down the road. The fact that it is available means less people will be driving, and more dense development lessens wasteful sprawl. It is a necessary step. Busways may be as good as rail, but alternatives must be developed. If only to make driving that much less of a headache. What is stupid is cutting it off before it reaches its purpose, like stopping the Northstar before it could reach St. Cloud and be truly productive. And, furthermore, it shows that abandoned rail should not be dismantled and turned into pathways, because if that hadn’t been done, we would have repairable rail tracks to Rochester from Red Wing. Railroads may have overbuilt in the state, but now they have been over-abandoned.

  7. Submitted by John DeWitt on 03/29/2018 - 11:29 pm.

    The Twin Cities is unique as a region with two successful light rail lines where key players still don’t get it. Virtually any city we’d consider a peer or competitor is steadily expanding its light rail system. It’s true that voters in Norfolk, VA, did not support expansion beyond its one light rail line. But I’d hardly consider Norfolk a peer city. Texas, Arizona, and Utah are certainly among our most conservative states. Yet light rail systems in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City are continually expanding. Opposition to light rail is not a conservative position. It’s a stupid position.

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