The federal government said Monday it is awarding $929 million to help pay for the Southwest light-rail line, a final financial linchpin for a transit project years in the making.
With a $2 billion price tag, Southwest is the biggest public works project in state history. Now under construction, the 14.5-mile line will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka.
“We are definitely celebrating,” said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which is building the project and will operate it once completed. “It really shows confidence on the part of the federal government and all our partners to get the job done.”
Beyond the grant from the federal government, the rest of the project is being funded primarily by Hennepin County, with some state funding.
“While Southwest [light rail] is a project in the Twin Cities, there isn’t a county in the state this project won’t impact, from the businesses supplying construction material to creating thousands of jobs,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a news release. “I can’t wait for my first ride.”
Construction, which began in late 2018, is slated to wrap up in 2023, when passenger service is expected to begin. About 25% of the construction is done.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said she was grateful the funding was approved. “This is a vital project to our community — one that will help commuters in my district get to work safely, relieve congestion and cut back on carbon emissions,” she said in a statement.
The news of Southwest’s funding comes as the Met Council announced that it would retool the area’s fourth light-rail project, the Bottineau Blue Line connecting Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. Both Southwest and Bottineau are extensions of the existing Green and Blue lines, respectively.
When asked if Southwest will be the last light-rail project in Minnesota, Zelle conceded that other modes of transit or a different route could be contemplated for Bottineau. But, at the same time, Monday’s news from the Federal Transit Administration “shows light-rail projects can have real value.”
Planned in some fashion for at least two decades, Southwest has garnered its share of controversy over the years, including a 2014 lawsuit, later dismissed, claiming its environmental review violated federal law.
Despite Monday’s news, the Southwest project still has its share of critics.
Residents have expressed concern about its passenger trains operating near freight trains, some of which are ferrying flammable ethanol. “No safety consultant would advise storing matches next to the lighter fluid — but this is what [Southwest] amounts to, but on a catastrophic scale, and in a residential area,” said Mary Pattock of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association in Minneapolis.
She noted there have been three “potentially fatal” construction incidents during the first year of construction. No one was injured in the incidents, but residents at one point had to be temporarily evacuated from their homes.