The spiraling price and further delays facing the proposed Southwest light-rail line justify the reassessment of the project that Gov. Mark Dayton and Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck called for on Monday. “All options are on the table,” Duininck said, and they should be, considering that an analysis now estimates the cost of the controversial project may be nearly $2 billion — an increase of $341 million from the previous projection — and that the opening of the line would be pushed back another year to 2020.
There is one option that shouldn’t be chosen, however: Doing nothing. There’s still a growing need for better transit options for businesses, workers and students between the burgeoning southwest suburbs and a vital downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and St. Paul.
Several key concurrent questions need to be addressed during the reassessment. First, why was the cost estimate so dramatically off? Several factors have been cited by the Met Council, including, but not limited to, environmental, engineering, operational and safety requirements, as well as additional property acquisition. But why wasn’t there better understanding of these challenges, especially since the 16-mile line — which would travel through parts of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie — has been debated for so many years?
Second, and most important, fundamental assumptions on the mode, route and funding of Southwest Corridor transit need to be reconsidered. Light rail, which has proved so successful with the Blue (Hiawatha) and Green (Central Corridor) lines, should still be considered, if costs can be corralled. But it appears unrealistic to expect proponents to rally the political support necessary to continue a project that has already cost $59 million. But that does not mean that other options, including commuter rail and bus rapid transit, should not be considered.
There will be a temptation in some quarters to simply suggest scrapping plans for the line and reverting to the status quo. In fact, that would be seen as a victory for some transit detractors, particularly some Republican legislators who have made opposition to light rail as much of an ideological issue as an infrastructure discussion. But opposition to light rail should not mean opposition to transit in general and Southwest solutions in particular.
The Twin Cities metro area aspires to be world-class, and no region obtains that status without a world-class transit system. Southwest-suburban businesses in particular have strongly advocated for better transit options. And urban advocates have stressed the need to better connect inner-city workers with jobs. These are objectives that should engender consensus on the need, and eventually the mode and route, of transit.
“The core of this corridor and the future of this region depends on a thriving transit network, regardless of whether this project happens,” Duininck told an editorial writer this week. He’s right. And now state leaders need to find the right transit solution for this corridor. The new estimates are a setback. But if the rethink is thorough and forward-looking, it could help build support for a solution that would pay dividends for the entire region for decades to come.