LRT fight risks project

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 5, 2013 - 10:09 AM

Twin Cities isn’t only metro area to face backlash to light-rail transit projects, as collapse of Washington state project shows.

For supporters of the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, events this summer in Washington state offer a cautionary tale.

A light-rail transit project runs into criticism over its cost and value. Despite millions of dollars spent and endorsement by the federal government, the project collapses in the face of political opposition.

The specific problems that plagued the bridge and transit project in the Pacific Northwest differ from those now confronting planners of the LRT line between downtown Minneapolis and the southwest suburbs. But the experience demonstrates how a transit project can run off the rails after years of detailed planning and preparation.

Some veterans of planning for the Southwest Corridor project worry that it, too, will stall in the face of controversy over costs and execution.

“I’m deeply discouraged at this stage,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who has spent years working on Southwest.

The Southwest LRT is hung up by Minneapolis residents who don’t want it running above ground through their parkland and by St. Louis Park residents who don’t want to see freight trains rerouted through their neighborhoods to make room for the light-rail line.

The Metropolitan Council, the regional agency overseeing the project, has offered to bury the LRT in tunnels in Minneapolis or to design a freight reroute that would spare a high school football stadium in St. Louis Park.

While some local officials want to take more time to consider alternatives, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh said last week that her agency is on track to choose an option on Aug. 28.

“The time has come to make a decision,” she said.

Governor alarmed

The cost of rerouting freight traffic or building tunnels could raise the total price of the Southwest LRT from $1.25 billion to between $1.58 billion and $1.82 billion, likely making it the most expensive public works project in the Twin Cities and putting more burden on local, state and federal governments to pay for it.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) required the Met Council to include costs of resolving the freight dispute in the overall price of the LRT project. The FTA “did not say that the project’s total budget could not exceed $1.25 billion,” the agency said recently. “It is not unusual for a project’s initial cost estimate to change.”

Haigh said she still expects the federal government to pick up 50 percent of the cost, a share it tentatively committed to when the price was lower. She and other supporters are counting on Twin Cities counties to pay 40 percent and the state to kick in 10 percent.

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement that he met recently with Haigh, whom he appointed to head the agency, and “expressed my alarm about the rising cost of the projected Southwest Light Rail Line.”

“I said that I would not support any more state funding until after firm, ‘not-to-exceed,’ cost estimates had been finalized,” Dayton said. “I am focused on reducing its costs.”

In Washington state, cost created a political obstacle for the Columbia River Crossing project, which included replacing an interstate bridge, creating bike and pedestrian lanes and extending a light-rail line from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash.

The project, in the works for 20 years, started at $3.5 billion but was pared to $2.8 billion after local officials decided to postpone work on the interchanges but move forward with the LRT and bridge work.

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