The following letter to the editor was published in the Star Tribune on May 11, 2016.
SOUTHWEST LRT: It’s not ready for prime time; Legislature should table it
A recent commentary in the Star Tribune shows, both the business community and long-term residents support the need for more spending on transportation infrastructure including Southwest light rail, or SWLRT. There is no question that to improve our roads, relieve gridlock and maintain economic competitiveness, our region deserves significant additional investment in transit. However, at this very late date there are significant unresolved environmental, safety and legal concerns with SWLRT that should eliminate it from any transportation bill.
The problems with SWLRT as currently planned might not be solvable since they stem from the co-location of light rail and freight, never a part of the original design — and which was explicitly discouraged by the draft environmental-impact statement (EIS) issued in conjunction with that design. There is as yet no final EIS for the project as now envisioned. The legality of proceeding this far without a final EIS relevant to the current plan is being challenged in federal court. Longer-term projections of ridership and the cost/ridership ratios also have recently been questioned, as have the relative benefits of light rail in this corridor vs. other approaches such as expanded bus lines that, with hybrid or electric vehicles, might be more environmentally responsible, have a smaller carbon footprint and be much less expensive. In view of these very serious concerns, the Federal Transit Administration might well not select SWLRT for matching funds regardless of state action.
The most responsible course for the Legislature would be to table the project for this session, examine the implications of the final EIS when it is issued later this year, and await resolution of the legal issues while obtaining more information about ridership projections and more-flexible, less-expensive alternatives. Federal money will always be available for worthy projects in future years, and it would be preferable to apply with a more fully vetted plan than to proceed now and risk rejection.