The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the August 5, 2014 issue of the StarTribune:
Light-rail Transit Fight Poses Risk for Future Project
Twin Cities isn’t only metro area to face backlash to light-rail transit projects, as collapse of Washington state project shows.
For supporters of the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, events this summer in Washington state offer a cautionary tale.
A light-rail transit project runs into criticism over its cost and value. Despite millions of dollars spent and endorsement by the federal government, the project collapses in the face of political opposition.
The specific problems that plagued the bridge and transit project in the Pacific Northwest differ from those now confronting planners of the LRT line between downtown Minneapolis and the southwest suburbs. But the experience demonstrates how a transit project can run off the rails after years of detailed planning and preparation.
Some veterans of planning for the Southwest Corridor project worry that it, too, will stall in the face of controversy over costs and execution.
“I’m deeply discouraged at this stage,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who has spent years working on Southwest.
The Southwest LRT is hung up by Minneapolis residents who don’t want it running above ground through their parkland and by St. Louis Park residents who don’t want to see freight trains rerouted through their neighborhoods to make room for the light-rail line.
The Metropolitan Council, the regional agency overseeing the project, has offered to bury the LRT in tunnels in Minneapolis or to design a freight reroute that would spare a high school football stadium in St. Louis Park.
While some local officials want to take more time to consider alternatives, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh said last week that her agency is on track to choose an option on Aug. 28. “The time has come to make a decision,” she said.
The cost of rerouting freight traffic or building tunnels could raise the total price of the Southwest LRT from $1.25 billion to between $1.58 billion and $1.82 billion, likely making it the most expensive public works project in the Twin Cities and putting more burden on local, state and federal governments to pay for it.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) required the Met Council to include costs of resolving the freight dispute in the overall price of the LRT project. The FTA “did not say that the project’s total budget could not exceed $1.25 billion,” the agency said recently. “It is not unusual for a project’s initial cost estimate to change.”
Haigh said she still expects the federal government to pick up 50 percent of the cost, a share it tentatively committed to when the price was lower. She and other supporters are counting on Twin Cities counties to pay 40 percent and the state to kick in 10 percent.
On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement that he met recently with Haigh, whom he appointed to head the agency, and “expressed my alarm about the rising cost of the projected Southwest Light Rail Line.”
“I said that I would not support any more state funding until after firm, ‘not-to-exceed,’ cost estimates had been finalized,” Dayton said. “I am focused on reducing its costs.”
In Washington state, cost created a political obstacle for the Columbia River Crossing project, which included replacing an interstate bridge, creating bike and pedestrian lanes and extending a light-rail line from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash.
The project, in the works for 20 years, started at $3.5 billion but was pared to $2.8 billion after local officials decided to postpone work on the interchanges but move forward with the LRT and bridge work.
“One lesson learned in this project, and I suspect for many projects around the country, is that the duration of the project can create some challenges when it comes to maintaining support,” said Vancouver Mayor Timothy Leavitt.
With Washington citizens in “a more conservative mood,” the light-rail project became a target, Leavitt said. “Some were saying it’s too expensive; some were saying our community isn’t dense enough” to justify the transit. Some downtown Vancouver businesses worried about construction disruptions.
Oregon and Washington were expected to split $900 million of the cost. While Oregon agreed, the Washington state Senate refused this summer to approve a gas tax increase to finance its $450 million share. The decision “at least stalled if not killed” the project after $170 million was spent developing it, Leavitt said.
Minneapolis earlier agreed to running the Southwest LRT through the Kenilworth corridor between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, an area popular with bikers and hikers, but on condition that adjacent freight train traffic be moved.
St. Louis Park has objected to the freight being rerouted to their community, on berms as high as two stories in one option the Met Council is considering.
Last week homeowners’ groups near the two Minneapolis lakes increased pressure in support of another Met Council option, a deep tunnel for the LRT in the Kenilworth corridor to keep it out of sight, and issued threats if they didn’t get their way.
If a deep tunnel is rejected, “litigation is all but certain,” the groups said in a news release. “People will be on their way to stop [Southwest LRT] at the State Capitol and in Washington, D.C.”
They rejected a Met Council option for less expensive, shorter tunnels separated by a water channel, saying it would leave the LRT running above ground for too long a distance.
Some residents have suggested revisiting the idea of running the Southwest line down the Midtown Greenway and north on Nicollet Avenue to downtown, an option that was estimated to cost $1.7 billion. Dorfman said it was among dozens of potential routes rejected during years of planning.
“None of them worked for various reasons, and not just for cost,” she said, citing impact on historic properties and disruptions to businesses.
Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Eden Prairie — the cities along the future LRT line — and Hennepin County and the Met Council determined the Kenilworth corridor “to be the best route for the light rail,” she said. “It’s still true today.”
Reconsidering the LRT route now would run the risk that the project will fall “out of the competition for 50 percent federal funding and cause a multiyear delay,” Haigh said.
Dorfman said the dispute “won’t drag on and on because at some point, because of competition from around the country, the feds will say we’re moving on and reallocate this money that was intended for Southwest to some other project.”