Bankrollers of metro transit projects on Wednesday intensified their call to trim costs for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line, urging planners to resist demands that could drive up the price.
The county officials who help fund transit projects said Southwest planners should consider ditching plans for building two tunnels in Minneapolis and instead place the light-rail line above ground next to existing freight tracks — an idea opposed by that city.
Meanwhile, the agency overseeing the project is offering to eliminate one of the tunnels, a suburban station at the end of the line and a mile of track near it to save more than $100 million.
The Southwest line was expected to cost $1.25 billion but now approaches $1.6 billion to settle a dispute over freight trains in the path of the future LRT. But there is growing sentiment among county officials who have their fingers on some of the purse strings to bring the total well below $1.5 billion.
“I don’t see good decisions being made,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough. “I see money being thrown at small groups.”
McDonough is a member of a coalition of five metro counties expected to fund 30 percent of the Southwest construction with a quarter-cent metro-area sales tax dedicated to transit. One of them, Hennepin County, also will kick in another 10 percent, as will the state. The federal government is expected to pay for half.
Control over funding gives the coalition a voice on decisions made by the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, which has created costly options to satisfy critics threatening to stall it.
One top option involves making room for the LRT in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis by rerouting freight trains to St. Louis Park. The option includes $200 million berms to address railroad concerns about safety but is opposed by resident activists and the city of St. Louis Park.
Another major option involves keeping the freight in the Minneapolis corridor alongside recreational trails and digging two tunnels nearby for the LRT at a cost of $160 million. Organized neighbors and city officials oppose having the light-rail tracks next to the freight above ground.
Neither option appealed to the coalition of county officials Wednesday. “Responding to narrow interest groups,” McDonough said.
Dakota County Commissioner Paul Krause added, “If certain cities want certain things, they better open up their pocketbooks.”
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look asked why the Met Council has virtually rejected a less expensive idea: having the freight and LRT run next to each other in the Kenilworth corridor and rerouting the recreational trails for about a mile at the narrowest points.
“We have a solution staring us right in the face,” he said.
At $35 million to $40 million, “It was the lowest cost option,” said Mark Fuhrmann, in charge of transit development for the Met Council. But he added that 567,000 bike rides have been recorded on the trails and rerouting them drew opposition from bike groups worried about safety. In addition, neighbors objected to hundreds of LRT trains near their back yards.
The Met Council is preparing a list of ways to reduce the price of the project. It could shave $60 million from estimated tunnel costs by digging only one tunnel between Lake Street and just south of the channel linking Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.
It could save another $75 million by eliminating the Mitchell Station at the end of the line in Eden Prairie and the last mile of track running to it.
County officials expressed frustration that the high cost of the Southwest project will sap funding and political support for other transit projects.
“I would hate to see us, on this one line, lose that support,” McDonough said.