Two crucial approvals for Southwest and Bottineau light rail in late August suggest that however fitfully, the metropolitan area is making strides to move beyond singular light-rail lines and toward a more-integrated transit system.
To be sure, there are many technical, financial, governmental and even legal hurdles ahead. But after a yearslong process, progress on Southwest (also called the Green Line Extension) and Bottineau (also known as the Blue Line Extension) is significant and encouraging.
On Aug. 29, the Minneapolis City Council voted 10-3 to grant municipal consent to the proposed Southwest line, which would travel nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis through portions of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Now that all five cities as well as Hennepin County have granted consent, more advanced design work can proceed, and an application eventually can be submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for 50 percent federal funding of the nearly $1.6 billion project. (Other funding sources include 30 percent from the Counties Transit Improvement Board and 10 percent from both the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and the state of Minnesota).
Approval didn’t, and shouldn’t have, come easy. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and key City Council leaders negotiated changes to previous proposals. Among the improvements to the deal are necessary pedestrian enhancements at some stations in the city, as well as an agreement that publicly held land under the freight rails in the Kenilworth corridor would remain in public hands in order to reduce the chance of more freight trains, with potentially more dangerous cargo, from using the rails.
Among the next steps is the release of a supplemental draft environmental-impact statement (SDEIS). Even some council members voting “yes” seemed to lament having to vote before the statement was issued. Should it suggest a specific threat to nearby city lakes or parkland, it could, and indeed should, trigger a new municipal-consent process.
Although the negotiated deal is not ideal, the 10 council members showed laudable leadership by voting with regional interests in mind. But it should not be forgotten that Minneapolis would greatly benefit, too. City residents will get enhanced access to the burgeoning suburban job base along the line. And Southwest will further cement downtown as the region’s business hub.
The Bottineau approval came not from a municipality but from the federal government. On Aug. 22, it was announced that the Metropolitan Council can begin the design process on the 13-mile, 12-station line that would move through north Minneapolis and portions of Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park.
According to Metropolitan Council data, that corridor is expected to grow by 110,000 people by 2040, and currently a relatively high 14 percent of households in the corridor do not have cars. This figure rises to more than 50 percent in portions of north Minneapolis. As an extension to the Blue Line, Bottineau can help connect people to jobs, not just along the line and in downtown, but by linking Target Field Station, via the Green Line Extension, to the job-rich southwest suburbs.
Despite the progress, completion of the two projects is not a sure thing. A likely lawsuit challenging the municipal-consent process may be announced today. That could halt the Southwest project, at least temporarily. And there are concerns about the Bottineau route, especially where it skirts Theodore Wirth Park.
Funding is a chronic concern, and light rail is playing heavily in the race for governor, despite the relatively low portion of state money. In addition, on the federal level, a post-Obama White House and newly elected Congress may have distinctly different priorities on funding transit.
Advocates will need to address these issues directly in order to sustain the recent momentum. They can take heart from the examples of the current Blue Line (Hiawatha) and Green Line (Central Corridor), which each faced myriad challenges before the trains began to roll.
But in July, according to the Met Council, 31,474 people rode the Blue Line on an average weekday. And 31,309 rode the Green Line on a given weekday, which is already ahead of 2015 expectations. That total is expected to swell once trips to the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College and other local educational institutions are counted.
Patience and perseverance are always needed to complete transit projects. These recent developments on Southwest and Bottineau should boost transit advocates and steel them for the challenges ahead.