The success of the Hiawatha light-rail line helped clear the political path for the Northstar commuter-rail project and the planned Central Corridor LRT line. The growing public and political acceptance of rail as part of a comprehensive transit system -- combined with the clogged roads, environmental concerns and the fresh memory of this summer's $4-a-gallon gas -- has made it increasingly likely that the proposed Southwest LRT line will be the fourth spur of rail travel.
Cost estimates for the 14-mile route are $865 million to $1.4 billion in 2015 dollars, the year the line may begin service. Designed to serve Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, the eventual decision on the line's path through Minneapolis and Eden Prairie could have a profound effect on ridership, cost-effectiveness and development of jobs and neighborhoods.
Three specific routes have been proposed. Depending on which is chosen, some have suggested a separate project that would use a trolley along the Midtown Greenway to connect the Hiawatha and Southwest lines.
In Eden Prairie, the line will either traverse a rail/trail corridor owned by Hennepin County that is focused on the more residential end of the western part of the city. Or, in a route seemingly preferred by Eden Prairie officials, the line may move down the eastern border with Minnetonka, serving burgeoning business parks, the Southwest Transit Center and Eden Prairie Center.
In Minneapolis, the line will either be built alongside the Kenilworth trail on the east side of Cedar Lake and go under Interstate 394, ending at the proposed intermodal transit station near Target Field, which would allow passengers to easily transfer to other lines. The other route would forgo Kenilworth in favor of using the Midtown Greenway and then veer north on Nicollet Avenue, with an eventual stopping point at the new downtown Central Library.
Reasonable arguments have been made for each option, with opinions split more sharply on the Minneapolis decision. A tunnel may need to be dug under stretches of Nicollet, which would add significant costs. But that route could be more cost effective over time if traveling through the densely populated Whittier and Uptown areas encourages more ridership. Conversely, not connecting with the Intermodal Station may discourage some from using the system. And the Eden Prairie decision may mean more access to suburban employers for city residents, or more convenience for suburban commuters traveling to downtown jobs.
New data on cost and ridership will be available in early 2009, and a final decision on the route will be made by mid-year.
Many Minnesotans have a stake in the decision, whether they ride the rails or not. Three public hearings have already been held. But there's still a chance to be heard, as online comments are accepted until 5 p.m. on Nov. 7.
Compelling contests in local and national elections indicate that record turnout is possible for Tuesday's election. This is great for governance, but the rise in civic engagement shouldn't end with big elections. Instead, it should continue with the ongoing issues Twin Cities residents face, including the new Southwest LRT.