Elected officials Wednesday were unified in their support of the Southwest light-rail line — but not of its new $2 billion price tag.
The cost of the controversial rail line, which would link Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, ballooned by $341 million after environmental, engineering and other costs came in far more than expected. Gov. Mark Dayton last week called the unexpected hike “appalling,” and Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said “all options are on the table,” including scuttling the project altogether.
On Wednesday, Metro Transit staff presented facts and figures for various boards and committees involved in planning the project. Responses ranged from hopeful to shocked.
Members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), comprised of elected officials from Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties, said they would not commit any more than the $496 million already approved for the project, or 30 percent of the previous $1.65 billion cost. CTIB raises its funds through a metro-area quarter-cent sales tax set aside for transportation.
The transit board’s sentiment was echoed later in the day by members of the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning body, as well as an advisory committee comprised of other elected officials and mayors representing towns along the 16-mile suburban route.
Their marching orders involved instructing Metro Transit staff to suggest where those painful cuts will be made.
“We are going to have to get out our sharp pencils” to slash costs, said CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin, who is a Hennepin County commissioner. He said both the Blue and Green light-rail lines reached a similar nexus in their development where “sacrifices needed to be made. I still think we can make [Southwest] work.”
The price increase was largely attributed to increased wetlands and contaminated soils along the suburban pathway of the project, as well as an increase in the number of property acquisitions needed to clear the way. The opening of the line, originally slated for 2019, was also pushed back a year — a delay that will cost $50 million.
Matt Look, a CTIB member and an Anoka County commissioner, said the price increase is “mind-blowing. I don’t think they’ve moved wetlands. How did we not know this?”
“We have to be crystal clear that we’re locked in at $496 [million],” Look said, adding that increased funding would be a “slippery slope.”
Mark Fuhrmann, deputy general manager of Metro Transit, told the various bodies Wednesday that a comprehensive review by his staff is underway to identify cost savings. In addition, Metro Transit will be engaging with the cities along the line — Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie — to glean ideas for cost “refinements.”
Throughout the day, several ideas were floated, including trimming the number of stations along the line, now at 17, and eliminating amenities at others. Cutting out the Mitchell Road station in Eden Prairie would save $110 million to $120 million. Another idea involved scaling back on a maintenance facility in Hopkins. A preliminary report on prospective cuts will be presented to the Met Council on May 20.
Met Council Member Steven Chavez said he was experiencing “sticker shock” at the project’s ballooning cost. “I could not go to a CEO on a [private sector] project and say it’s going to cost 20 percent more. I’d be dead in the water,” he said.
But Jason Gadd, a Hopkins city councilman, told the Southwest Light Rail Community Advisory Committee, “if we all make sacrifices and work together, we can make it work.”
McLaughlin said he has been in contact with Therese McMillan, acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to contribute half the cost of the line. She was “very positive and encouraged us to keep at it.”