Our viewpoint: Keep Southwest Light Rail on time and on budget

The proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie has been capturing headlines and generating controversy for many years. The dream of extending the Metro Green Line from Target Field south and west into the suburbs has seemed many days to be only that – a dream.

Even staunch supporters of light rail transit grew weary with the never-ending debate over the Kenilworth Corridor track location. And when the cost estimate soared to $2 billion several months ago, some Southwest LRT advocates were ready to call it quits.

Today, Southwest Light Rail is alive and we urge our local, county, metro and state officials to push the project to construction and completion, and to do it on budget and on time.

The Metropolitan Council approved a revised project plan July 8, after $250 million in expenses were cut, primarily by eliminating two stops in Eden Prairie, ending the Green Line at the Southwest Station. In addition, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Hennepin County have pledged an additional $12.5 million.

Those changes bring the new cost estimate to $1.744 billion – still a staggering number but much closer to the previous $1.653 billion.

Many outstate politicians and metro Republicans have criticized this project and light rail in general. “We need roads and bridges, not trains,” was a frequent phrase used during the 2014 election.

Greater Minnesota residents fear projects like the Southwest LRT project are taking funds away from their many transportation needs. However, only seven percent – $120 million – of the total cost is budgeted to come from the state. And of that $120 million, the state has already allocated $27 million.

The federal government will pay half of the cost. The next largest portion comes from the Counties Transit Improvement Board – $496 million. CTIB’s funds come from a quarter-cent sales tax in five metro counties (Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington) plus a $20 motor vehicle sales tax.

The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority will provide $165 million. That still leaves about $200 million to pay the bill, but the Metro Council is confident enough in the project that the municipal consent process has been reinitiated.

“The municipal consent hearings will be the public’s opportunity to comment on the preliminary design plans that were revised as a result of $250 million in scope reductions,” Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said in a July 22 statement to the media. “Southwest LRT is a once-in-a-century project and reinitiating municipal consent is critical to ensuring that there is an opportunity for public and community response to the project’s current design.”

Detailed local plans are now available in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina and Eden Prairie. The Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County Board of Commissioners and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority will jointly hold the first public hearing Aug. 27 on the revised Southwest LRT preliminary design plans.

Each of the five cities involved will also hold hearings. The process must be completed by Oct. 11.

There is no question that this is an expensive project and a major commitment to light rail transit. However, the ease and speed that light rail provides to riders should prove to greatly benefit the Twin Cities – and in fact the entire state – for decades to come.

Light rail can move thousands of people in a short period of time – workers trying to move across any piece of the west metro this summer can attest to the misery that exists every morning and evening. Tourists can easily park in one of the transit hubs, and save the hassle and cost of driving downtown for a Twins or Vikings game, or to the University of Minnesota, or east into downtown St. Paul.

Even organizations like the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce advocate the Southwest LRT project be completed. Brad Meier, Chamber president, in a recent guest column in Sun Newspapers, said, “Let’s get the price tag back in line, keep the rider volume and complete this project.”

Meier pointed out that this infrastructure is not being built only for today but “to meet the work demands of the future.” Huge corporations such as United HealthCare are located along the line, expected to create thousands of new jobs.

Building the Southwest LRT project is a significant investment in tomorrow – future residents, workers and metro-area visitors. We urge our city, county, metro and state leaders to work together to move this project along. We agree with Chamber president Meier and echo his words, understanding that it will take a concerted and cooperative effort by all.

Keep the Southwest Light Rail Transit Green Line extension on budget and opening on time in 2020.

– An opinion from the ECM Editorial Board. Reactions to this column — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: editor.sun@ecm-inc.com.