You’ve got questions about Southwest light rail. I know you do, because plenty of you pepper me with them every time this column makes mention of the biggest, most controversial transit project yet in these fair Twin Cities.
And you thought I was ignoring you! Not a bit. Here are some answers I’ve collected this summer at a spate of Southwest-related meetings that culminated last week in a politically risky maneuver to secure the final $144 million funding required for the $2 billion project.
Why put more mass transit in the affluent southwestern portion of the metro area?
Because that’s where much of the region’s growth in jobs and population is forecast to occur. The biggest concentration of job vacancies in the region is already along the proposed Southwest line (aka the Green Line extension). The Metropolitan Council’s nose-counters say that 175,000 jobs already exist near the proposed line, and 64,000 more will be there by 2035.
Why use light rail? Wouldn’t buses be cheaper? Or how about commuter rail?
Light rail costs a lot to build, but it’s significantly cheaper to operate than bus service. That’s because one three-car train allows one operator to serve many times more riders than buses do. Adding buses wouldn’t relieve congestion on highways that are already clogged during rush hours.
As for commuter rail, it would operate much like today’s express buses — one-way service between just a few locations on a limited schedule. That’s what the not-so-successful Northstar line offers today — and while that line was cheaper to build than light rail would have been, its per-passenger government subsidy is running at a whopping $14.15. By contrast, the per-rider Southwest subsidy is forecast to be $1.75.
Still, $2 billion for construction of a 14-mile line? Doesn’t this siphon off money from other transportation needs?
Not much. Just $30 million in state money will help build this line, and that’s already been spent. The $929 million — a 50 percent share of total construction costs— that the feds are offering for Southwest cannot be diverted to any other project in Minnesota. If this region does not claim it, it will be on its way to some other city. If that happens, good luck trying to get it back anytime soon.
The other big source of Southwest’s financing is a five-county sales tax that’s been earmarked since 2008 for Metro Transit improvements and their operational expenses. It can’t flow to rural roads or regular bus service. It could be used for other new Metro Transit lines — but if Southwest does not go forward, those lines will also be in trouble because their ability to attract federal funds will be damaged.
Wouldn’t a route through Uptown be a better investment? Or one that went deeper into north Minneapolis, where more low-income people live?
Alternative routes were studied at length a few years ago. The big problem with an Uptown route is that it would use Nicollet Avenue to get into downtown Minneapolis, most likely through a tunnel between the Midtown Greenway and Franklin Avenue. Building that tunnel would completely close a major thoroughfare for as much as three years. So long, Eat Street.
The Southwest line will skirt north Minneapolis, close enough to be a walk, bus trip or bike ride away for many North Side residents. The people-of-color share of residents near two of the line’s Minneapolis stops exceeds 40 percent. But the real gain for low-income residents will come when the entire rapid transit system is built. A study released in June by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies found that the proposed system would significantly increase access to jobs for people in disadvantaged areas. Low-income workers need fast, frequent, dependable service, it said. That’s what light rail provides.
Could a pending lawsuit interfere with the project’s start? Could it halt the project once it has begun?
Two pending lawsuits did not delay construction of the first leg of the Green Line in 2011. The one remaining suit against Southwest won’t slow it down, either. The feds evidently aren’t cowed by lawsuits against transit lines.
An adverse court ruling next year could spell trouble. But the likelihood of that happening diminished in July when the Federal Transit Administration issued a “record of decision” giving the project’s handling of environmental concerns its blessing. That decision appears to undercut the lawsuit’s contention that the consent of cities along the line was improperly obtained before environmental analysis was completed.
Can Southwest attract enough riders to ease traffic congestion?
Maybe. The line is forecast to serve 34,000 riders a day by 2040, reducing daily vehicle miles driven by 113,000. You’d think that would mean a freer flow of traffic. But factor in the expected population and job growth in the southwest metro, and just keeping traffic flowing at its current (annoying) pace will be a major achievement.
The interesting thing about ridership projections for the region’s existing two light-rail lines is that they’ve erred on the low side. The Blue Line blew past its 2020 weekday ridership forecast in 2015; on many days, the Green Line is already exceeding its 2030 ridership forecast. For all the naysaying that they generated, those lines are proving their worth every day. It’s a lot more pleasant to imagine the Twin Cities with more of them than without them.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.