Eden Prairie agreed to drop or delay two stations. Minneapolis balked at losing any. With two weeks left before a critical vote on the Southwest light-rail line, public officials are bearing down on $341 million in cost cuts that appear to hit the western end of the line the hardest.
On Wednesday, members of the Southwest Corridor Management Committee, an advisory body of officials with ties to cities along the 16-mile line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie — continued to debate what will stay and what will go.
No clear consensus emerged. And time is tight: The committee is expected to submit a list of cuts to the Metropolitan Council on July 1, with a final council vote a week later.
The committee must wrestle the transit project’s budget back to $1.65 billion after its price tag ballooned to nearly $2 billion last spring.
The group has agreed, at least in principle, that there must be “shared sacrifice” among communities along the line, which runs through Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. But it’s clear the brunt of the cuts will fall on Eden Prairie, which appears resigned to its fate, while Minneapolis is resisting any wholesale belt-tightening on its end.
“Minneapolis has already made huge sacrifices to keep this project alive,” wrote Mayor Betsy Hodges in a five-page, single-spaced letter to the Met Council and its chair, Adam Duininck. She claimed suggested cuts proposed so far were “driven not by objective criteria … but by politics.”
New finish line: Southwest?
In a new twist that exemplifies the fluidity of the process, Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens on Wednesday suggested ending the line at the Southwest station, now a transit hub for express bus service, mostly to downtown Minneapolis. That would mean the proposed Mitchell Road station in Eden Prairie would be eliminated, and a station near Eden Prairie Town Center deferred.
She said the Southwest station, which already features a comfortable waiting room, nearby restaurants and a 970-space parking lot for commuters, would be a “true multimodal” destination with the addition of light rail.
While it’s unknown at this point how much this option would save, Tyra-Lukens estimated it would be $60 million short of the $341 million goal. That means cuts would have to be made elsewhere. Those cuts can’t dig too deep, however, since ridership must remain about 30,000 a day in order to qualify for $827 million in federal funding.
Tyra-Lukens does not favor an option discussed at a previous meeting to end the line near Eden Prairie Town Center, saying there’s little room for parking and passenger access to the station. That proposal also calls for deferring the Penn Avenue station in Minneapolis, decreasing park-and-ride facilities at other stations, and deleting the Mitchell Road and Southwest stations.
Metro Transit officials say the elimination of stations would trigger the need for cities to consent to the changes before they move forward, possibly introducing another wild card in the process.
Hodges said the city’s continued support depends on the Met Council adhering to a deal made last summer, an environmental review “containing no surprises,” and maintaining Minneapolis residents’ access to “a real equity train.” (The letter was also signed by Kevin Reich, chairman of the city’s Transportation and Public Works committee.)
The proposed deferral of the Penn Avenue station prompted Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins to voice her opposition. She said the station, located at the intersection of Interstate 394, “is such a gateway to north Minneapolis” and ripe for future development.
A deferral means that the track and foundation would be built, but construction of the station would depend on funding at a later date.
In addition, Peter Wagenius, Hodges’ policy director who serves on the committee, said information about bus connections to Minneapolis’ proposed stations is lacking. “We need to know that before making a decision,” he said.
Delayed until 2020
The occasionally contentious cost-cutting exercise comes after the Met Council revealed in April that the project’s price had ballooned because of poor ground conditions along its path, increased costs associated with property acquisition and contaminated soil in St. Louis Park and Hopkins.
As a result of the cost overruns, 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,” and Duininck to note that “all options are on the table.”
A subsequent review by Metro Transit indicated light-rail is still the most efficient and reliable option — beyond scrapping the project altogether — to serve the southwestern suburbs, when compared to bus service and bus-rapid transit. However, light rail has the highest capital cost.
Another review by the consulting firm Accenture, which cost $175,000, called for Metro Transit’s Southwest light-rail project office to improve and standardize communication about the project, among other recommendations.
Also on Wednesday, state Rep. Tim Kelly, chair of the House Transportation Committee, released a June 23 letter to Duininck questioning the use of “certificates of participation” to help fund the project costs and the council’s contention that the certificates are not debt.
Kelly, R-Red Wing, listed eight questions regarding the use of the financing tool, with the caveat that they be answered by July 12.
A Met Council spokesman said no decision has been made about the use of the certificates.