A Look Down the Tracks for SWLRT

The following article by Dylan Thomas was published in the September 2, 2015 issue of the Southwest Journal.  (A Park Watch note:  We found it odd that the article makes no mention of the two pending lawsuits hovering over the tracks.)

A Look Down the Tracks for SWLRT

Waiting for word on federal funding, local leaders consider next steps

The Southwest Light Rail Transit project’s federal funding application is still under review in Washington D.C., but in St. Louis Park on Wednesday local leaders were looking way beyond that key decision point.

Even though they’re still assembling the state and local contributions to the $1.77-billion project, members of the Corridor Management Committee are already anticipating the day when crews will finally “turn dirt” on the 14.5-mile light rail line. Project leaders at the Metropolitan Council say that day could arrive before the end of 2016.

“It’s not too early to talk about construction on this project,” SWLRT Project Director Craig Lamothe told members of the committee, who represent local governments and agencies.

It’s not too early because SWLRT will be the largest-ever public works project in Minnesota history, and heavy construction is scheduled to start in 2017. That’s just when dozens of contractors now working on two other major projects — U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and St. Croix Crossing on the Wisconsin border — will be looking for work, Mark Fuhrmann, who leads light rail development for the Met Council, said.

SWLRT plans include 15 stations, 34 bridges and miles of retaining walls, and Fuhrmann said contractors would need some time to muster the resources required for the job. Met Council plans a construction kick-off meeting Oct. 21 and will begin taking bids on construction work next year.

Met Council staff are also at work on the project’s final environmental impact statement, a key document describing not only the potential environmental effects of the line’s construction and operation but also the possible alternatives to a light rail line. It’s scheduled to be published in the first half of 2016, and the FTA’s acceptance of the document is required for final engineering work to begin.

Meanwhile, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck is preparing to make a push next legislative session to secure the rest of the state’s anticipated $165-million commitment to the project. Just $27 million of that amount has been pledged so far.

Duininck said if the legislature in St. Paul delays the decision another year it would cost the project $50 million. Beyond that, it could jeopardize SWLRT’s place in the federal funding queue, he added.

SWLRT is competing against six other regional transit projects across the country in FTA’s New Starts program. Federal funds are expected to cover half of all project costs.

Met Council submitted its New Starts application Aug. 3, and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the fact that FTA acted quickly to begin its review was “a really, really, really good sign.”

“When they move, they move,” McLaughlin said.

SWLRT’s standing in comparison to other New Starts applicants is based on a variety of factors, including cost-effectiveness, the potential to spur economic development and the local financial commitment. Updated ratings for the projects are expected early next year, and Lamothe expressed optimism that a recent effort to trim $250 million from the budget while retaining 15 of the original 17 stations would boost its standing.

The project is still short $18.5 million in local funds, even after Hennepin County and several of the cities along the route kicked-in extra dollars this summer. Met Council aims to fill that gap “before the holiday season” through a combination of additional cash contributions and land swaps, Lamothe said.

Cities along the line are hosting a second round of municipal consent hearings this month. Met Council requested they give the project their official “OK” again after the changes approved this summer.

All of the cities except for Minneapolis have scheduled public hearings.