Later this month, the Metropolitan Council is slated to decide an increasingly contentious Twin Cities transit issue — what to do about freight train traffic that currently runs on a portion of the proposed 15-mile Southwest Corridor light-rail line.
The decision will have a major impact on the line itself, as well as on the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, which will be most affected by the Met Council’s choice. But the reverberations will be felt statewide, particularly in the five metro counties that levy a transit sales tax and at the Legislature, where lawmakers will need to approve the state’s 10 percent share of the project’s cost.
The wrong decision could erode support for necessary infrastructure investments, making it less likely that the 2014 Legislature will act boldly on expanding transit throughout the region. And it could affect perceptions at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which will decide whether the approved projects will receive 50 percent federal funding.
The Met Council needs to get it right. Given the high stakes, it should not limit its consideration set to the eight options that have been developed to address the dispute. Instead, the metro planning agency should consider rethinking the route altogether.
The 2010 decision on the “locally preferred alternative” was the product of a transparent, collaborative, data-driven process that not only chose the route but the mode (light-rail transit over buses). But much has changed in three years.
For one, projected costs have risen significantly, depending in part on which option is chosen. What was to be a $1.25 billion project now could cost up to $1.82 billion if the most expensive plan is picked.
Rising costs may make an alternative route more cost-efficient, especially considering the increasing population density in Uptown and other Minneapolis neighborhoods that could be an alternative to the Kenilworth corridor. This is especially true because under some of the scenarios, the planned 21st Street station in Minneapolis would be eliminated. And the FTA’s cost-effectiveness index has changed under the Obama administration, so what was once considered a less-efficient option may now be looked at more favorably by federal funders.
Growing interest in reintroducing streetcars to Minneapolis also must be taken into account, as well as the engineering requirements to interline Southwest with the Central Corridor into a seamless “Green Line.”
Of course, once studied, the Kenilworth route may still be the best option. And as with any decision, there are several significant downsides to rethinking the route.
For one, opening up the process again could take years. So annual inflation, which the Met Council claims could be as high as $50 million, may erode any potential efficiency increases. And there may be resistance from those affected by a new route, including those who use the Midtown Greenway, as well as among businesses along whichever north-south street would be chosen to connect to downtown Minneapolis.
As important, a route rethink would likely mean that the project loses its place as just one of six in the FTA’s New Starts program. And there’s the question of just how long an austerity-minded federal government will fund half of local light-rail projects.
And yet the FTA and the Met Council want municipal consent, and full funding is far less likely if the project is not approved by Minneapolis or St. Louis Park. Each city seems unlikely to approve a project that it finds unacceptable, as evidenced by comments from some Minneapolis City Council members and letters from St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs and the St. Louis Park School Board.
Reopening the route discussion might be a temporary setback. But this is a permanent decision. In fact, rail’s inflexibility is often cited by elected officials and citizens who oppose investing in light rail. Reconsidering the route may not convince critics. But not doing so is sure to solidify their resistance, and may make Southwest light-rail transit a political issue instead of the business-friendly infrastructure investment the project should rightly be considered.
To be sure, the Southwest line is a key component of the region’s economic development. And just as route disputes with the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio ultimately did not derail the Central Corridor light-rail line, the freight-rail issue should not stop Southwest in its tracks. But it’s important — indeed, imperative — to make the right decision for the project’s sake, as well as for taxpayers and the business community, which has been essential in getting the project this far.
The Met Council should consider alternatives to the 2010 plan. The Twin Cities will live with the route decision for decades.