A laudable spirit of sacrifice among five cities and Hennepin County has resurrected, if not rescued, the Southwest light-rail line.
To sustain that momentum, the Metropolitan Council on Wednesday should approve the recommendations of the Southwest LRT Corridor Management Committee, and going forward state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton should coalesce around funding the state’s 10 percent portion of what is now a $1.744 billion project.
The 16-mile line is a critical component in the region’s overall transportation and economic development strategy as the Twin Cities area tries to keep up with transit-friendly competitors such as Seattle, Denver and Dallas.
Southwest’s price tag had soared to nearly $2 billion after the Met Council calculated higher costs for mitigating poor soil conditions and contaminated land, as well as acquiring more property. After Dayton said he was “shocked and appalled” by the rising costs, the Met Council conducted a review of alternatives. Credit goes to local leaders along the line and at the Met Council for tough budget cuts totaling $250 million, and for contributing cash and land to make up the difference of about $90 million.
Under the new plan, the line would wisely end at Southwest Station in Eden Prairie, already a major bus hub. The Town Center station would be deferred, while the previous plan’s terminus, Mitchell Station, was cut entirely. All of the other stations along the line were retained. That keeps ridership estimates consistent and is especially important for inner-city residents seeking access to the job-rich southwestern suburbs and for suburban workers seeking transit options to a burgeoning downtown.
Mitchell Station was not the only Southwest element reduced or cut. Some or all of previously planned furnishings, landscaping and public art were targeted, some ramps would instead be parking lots, the line’s maintenance facility was altered and five fewer light-rail cars would be purchased.
Nearly every civic entity along the line is considering contributing cash, land or both. Leading the way is Hennepin County, which could kick in $8 million and donate $30 million in land. Beyond sacrificing one station and deferring another, Eden Prairie could donate $3 million worth of land, and Minnetonka and St. Louis Park might contribute $2 million each. Hopkins may add $500,000.
Minneapolis, which saw the elimination of a $12 million bike bridge over the Cedar Lake Trail during this later round of cuts and a $30 million tunnel during the previous debate over the Kenilworth corridor, would not contribute any more money. Some of the new contributions would likely leverage matching funds from the Federal Transit Administration. (The federal government is expected to cover 50 percent of Southwest’s cost, while 30 percent would come from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, and 10 percent is slated from both the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and the state of Minnesota.)
Met Council approval is just one of the next key steps. Significant hurdles remain, including two lawsuits, procuring state money and competing for federal funds. To be sure, the Southwest process has been difficult. But the economic and environmental benefits of the line would make the effort worthwhile.