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Metro leaders who play a crucial role in funding transit revolted Wednesday over the rising price of the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, demanding that planners reduce costs or risk losing political support.
Much of their criticism centered on proposals by Southwest planners to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to appease critics of the project in Minneapolis.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat deplored “an extraordinary amount of time and energy that’s been spent to accommodate a relative few, mostly in Minneapolis.”
Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt declared that the cost — rising from $1.25 billion to between $1.58 billion and $1.82 billion — “is just unacceptable.”
They were among members of a regional transit panel that will be asked to pay for 30 percent of the project with Twin Cities sales taxes — the biggest contribution in the state. A common theme of their criticism is that the Southwest project’s bigger-than-expected price tag could sap money from other transit projects under development in the Twin Cities.
The Southwest Corridor light-rail line is expected to run nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015, but key decisions have been postponed at least a month as planners answer questions about its cost.
Initially, plans called for rerouting freight train traffic from Minneapolis to St. Louis Park to make room for the LRT in the narrow Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis, an area favored by bikers, canoeists and hikers.
A railroad complained that an initial reroute proposal was unsafe and St. Louis Park homeowners objected. But revised plans for a reroute by the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, would add about $200 million to its cost and has drawn objections from St. Louis Park homeowners who oppose elevating tracks on berms near schools.
And some Minneapolis residents are demanding that the Met Council hide the LRT in a deep 1.4-mile-long tunnel where it runs through Kenilworth. The agency says that would cost $330 million. Opat said the option should be ruled out as too costly.
“It’s time to take a cold, hard look at this and declare some things practically impossible,” he said. Referring to the affluence of the neighborhood alongside the Kenilworth corridor, he added, “I don’t know how we can continue to pretend that’s a viable alternative … to make, no offense, the wealthy happy or content.”
Fellow Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin also said that the deep tunnel is not a viable option.
The Met Council has offered a shorter, cut-and-cover shallow version of the deep tunnel at about half its cost, but corridor activists say it would involve the LRT running above ground for too long and digging it would harm the environment.
The deep and shallow tunnel ideas and the berm option are among eight alternatives under consideration by the Met Council for rerouting freight or leaving it near the future LRT in the Kenilworth corridor.
Members of the panel, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), on Wednesday urged the Met Council to take a closer look at some of the less costly alternatives, such as locating the LRT next to freight rail and recreational trails at ground level throughout the corridor. But that would conflict with decisions by Hennepin County and Minneapolis to accept the LRT in Kenilworth on condition that the freight was rerouted.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak on Wednesday said keeping the freight next to the future LRT would be “a flagrant disregard for a commitment that was made.”
“I think everyone is concerned about the cost,” he said, but added that the price of an acceptable option rose after the Met Council considered keeping the freight in the Kenilworth corridor.
Rybak reaffirmed his support for the LRT project, but said locating the LRT, freight and recreational trails next to each other at ground level in Kenilworth is “extremely problematic. I don’t see how that’s practical.”
He hasn’t ruled out supporting a shallow tunnel for the LRT. “It will be tough enough to find a solution without people drawing lines in the sand,” he said.
McLaughlin, who chairs the CTIB, said the Met Council needs to negotiate with the Twin Cities and Western Railroad to see if there are less expensive ways to reroute the freight in St. Louis Park or elsewhere. Railroad cooperation is desired because the federal government protects rail commerce.
The Met Council is having continuing discussions with the railroad and is reviewing documents “to see if there are any old proposals that were not fully vetted,” spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery said Wednesday.
“We are doing our due diligence to ensure no stone is left unturned,” she said. “We continue to believe that one of the eight options proposed by council staff will ultimately be the right option to resolve this issue, but if we uncover something promising … we will explore it fully.”
The agency earlier planned to recommend an option on Aug. 28, but has postponed a decision until late September to answer questions from affected cities and the CTIB.
“You have to make some hard decisions, and we’re getting to that point,” McLaughlin told other CTIB members Wednesday. “We have to vote, because we’ve got to provide 30 percent of the funding for this … the biggest funder short of the federal government.”
Hennepin County is kicking in 10 percent, as is the state.
Fear of fallout
Some CTIB members worry that the high cost of Southwest will jeopardize other transit projects, such as the Bottineau light-rail line planned for Minneapolis and some northern suburbs.
“I’d sure hate to blow all the money on this and then have a deficit for Bottineau,” said Matt Look, an Anoka County commissioner.
They also worry that rising costs of Southwest could hurt chances of raising more revenue for transit. The CTIB is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax in the five-county metro area, and members have tried to get the Legislature to increase the tax.
“If we don’t spend the money we have appropriately … we’ll never get passed another quarter-cent or a half-cent,” said Nancy Schouweiler, a Dakota County commissioner. “People just won’t swallow that.”