Metro Transit staff dug deep and presented a list of more than $500 million in possible cuts to the proposed Southwest light-rail line on Wednesday, part of an effort to curb escalating costs that have put the $2 billion transit project at risk.
No decisions were made at the meeting of the Southwest Corridor Management Committee, a group of officials with ties to the five cities along the 16-mile light-rail line linking Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. A final plan for trimming $341 million from the project’s burgeoning bottom line will likely come by early July, when the Metropolitan Council is slated to approve a new slimmed-down budget.
After a call to get out the “sharp pencils,” Metro Transit staff suggested a laundry list of major cuts — such as ending the line at the Golden Triangle business park in Eden Prairie, cutting out three stations and saving up to $375 million. Other proposed trims were less draconian, such as limiting landscaping and public art at the line’s 17 stations, and reconfiguring a maintenance facility.
The overall path of the line was generally kept intact.
“This is as challenging as I thought it would be,” said Met Council Chair Adam Duininck, who also heads the Southwest committee.
Moving forward, that challenge will involve making cuts that seem equitable to each town along the train’s path, which includes Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.
The exercise in belt-tightening comes after a Met Council analysis released in April found the original $1.65 billion cost of the controversial transit line had increased by $341 million. The hike was attributed to poor ground conditions along its pathway, increased costs associated with property acquisitions, and soil contamination in St. Louis Park and Hopkins. As a result, the state’s largest transportation project will be delayed by a year, opening sometime in 2020.
The news provoked a “shocked and appalled” Gov. Mark Dayton to express “serious questions about its viability and affordability.” Even Duininck said at the time “all options are on the table” for the controversial project, including abandoning it altogether.
Cities question cuts
Although Wednesday’s meeting was intended to be a big-picture presentation of possible cost-cutting scenarios, the fact that deleting or delaying the Royalston and Penn stations in Minneapolis made it on the list prompted a pointed soliloquy from Peter Wagenius, public policy director for Minneapolis.
He said the city consented to the project in part because the Royalston station would serve as an important connector between bus service in north Minneapolis and jobs-rich points south along the Southwest line. “Community expectations were high that that connectivity would exist, and now you’re proposing to delete two out of three stations serving north Minneapolis?” he said. He noted that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was equally outraged.
Likewise, Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens expressed concern if the line ended at the Golden Triangle business park, where some 20,000 people work at companies such as Supervalu Inc. and Starkey Laboratories Inc. That would mean the final three stations at Eden Prairie Town Center mall, Southwest (near a major park-and-ride facility) and Mitchell Road would be eliminated. “I think that would be very odd,” she said.
“I could handle losing [the] Mitchell Road [station],” she said. “It would not be ideal, because that station does serve more homes than any other along the line.” She said the loss of the Eden Prairie mall stop would be “devastating.”
Mark Fuhrmann, Metro Transit’s deputy general manager, said special care was made by staff to recommend cuts that would not imperil critical funding from the Federal Transit Administration, which is slated to pay half of Southwest’s total cost.
The remaining funds include 30 percent (or $496 million) from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a body composed of elected officials from Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties, who oversee revenue raised for transit through a metro-area sales tax. The remaining 20 percent would come from state coffers, and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority.