The following article by Dylan Thomas was published July 8, 2015 in the Southwest Journal and updated on July 14.
Met Council Approves Slimmed-down SWLRT Project
The Metropolitan Council on Wednesday afternoon voted to approve a Southwest Light Rail Transit project slimmed down in both budget and scope.
The line is about $250 million and a station lighter than it was just a few weeks ago, before the project’s Corridor Management Committee agreed July 1 on a package of cuts. Now a $1.74-billion project — instead of nearly $2 billion — the light-rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie still has a long way to go before opening day in 2020.
Met Council Member Gail Dorfman, a former Hennepin County commissioner, praised the local elected officials who pushed the controversial transit project forward, saying they were “beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Maybe not the metaphor I would’ve chosen,” quipped Met Council Chair Adam Duininck, who was likely thinking of the hard-won compromise with Minneapolis over a light-rail tunnel through Kenilworth Corridor, an issue that threatened to derail the entire project up until last summer.
With the project shrunk to 14.4 miles and 15 stations — plus one to be added after opening day — from its previous 15.8 miles and 17 stations, it will have to go back for another round of municipal consent. Hennepin County and the five cities along the line are all required to give their official OK again because of all the changes since the last round of municipal consent concluded almost a year ago.
Most of those changes are located at Eden Prairie’s end of the line, where Mitchell Road Station has been deleted and Town Center Station deferred until sometime in the future. The line’s new terminus is in-between the two, at Southwest Station.
There’s also the issue of funding for the line, a series of small and large question marks about commitments at the local, state and federal level.
The Corridor Management Committee set out to cut $341 million from the project, and when it fell more than $90 million short, Hennepin County and several of the cities agreed to chip in extra. Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority filled a large portion of the hole by donating $30 million worth of land to Met Council for the project, and Hennepin County plans to chip in about $8 million —although just $5 million in Environmental Response Fund dollars have been dedicated to the project so far.
Cities have to make firm commitments to additional funding by July 31, but SWLRT Project Director Craig Lamothe said Wednesday there was still a roughly $7-million gap at the local level.
Lamothe and his staff plan to submit their plans to the Federal Transit Authority by an Aug. 3 deadline. Federal funds are expected to cover half the project’s cost — now an amount totaling $872 million — but SWLRT remains in competition for those funds against other transit projects in the FTA’s New Starts program.
Lamothe said the cuts preserve a 2040 weekday ridership projection of 34,000 boardings and keep SWLRT a “very strong and competitive project.”
But the state, expected to contribute 10 percent to the project, has yet to make a firm financial commitment. Met Council may end up submitting a funding package to FTA that includes so-called “certificates of participation” — a form of bonding against future revenue — in place of the state’s share.
Duininck said Wednesday the recent cost-cutting process should demonstrate to the Legislature the level of commitment by local partners and make his job at the state capitol — to sell the line, more or less — a little easier.
Among other uncertainties, there are also two ongoing lawsuits against the line, one filed in 2014 by Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis and another filed in April by a group of Minnetonka residents. Both claim Met Council committed missteps during environmental review for the project.