The nearly $1.7 billion budget for the proposed Southwest Light Rail project includes a tantalizing pot of money for the cities along the line: a contingency fund estimated at about $300 million.
If that money, required by the federal government, isn't needed to address unexpected construction problems, it could be available for local enhancements to the project.
Cities have already come up with lots of ideas for how to spend that money.
The streetlights along University Avenue in St. Paul used to be those utilitarian-looking things that illuminate highways across the country. Now they have a more stately, wrought-iron look — each with two lanterns twinkling merrily.
The new lights came courtesy of the Green Line, which opened to great fanfare last month. It had a $155 million contingency fund as part of its budget and less than a third of that was needed to pay for unforeseen construction costs. The rest was available for other things, including more than $800,000 for streetlight upgrades.
The Southwest Light Rail project is still in its preliminary stages, but already cities have started making plans for the contingency fund.
"As you know this is a 100-year investment," said Julie Wischnack, community development director for the City of Minnetonka. "So when you do that kind of project, you want to make sure that you're thinking far enough in advance for future redevelopment. So I think that is the important thing that the city has to think about, and that's why we're requesting those improvements."
Wischnack said Minnetonka's number-one request is to connect 17th Avenue to K-Tel Drive, which would improve access to the proposed Shady Oak light rail station across the border in Hopkins.
"I wouldn't term it a wish list," she said. "It is something that the city finds to be a priority, and we will figure out a way to do the project."
The city also has asked for a pedestrian path connecting the line to nearby housing, and for the tracks to be laid in a way that would allow for a second Minnetonka station to be added in the future.
Metro Transit Light Rail Director Mark Fuhrmann said the Metropolitan Council has received requests from all five cities along the proposed line.
"What we are seeing here are local requests that are in the thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of dollars," Fuhrmann said. "And we are seeing a couple local requests that are in the tens of millions of dollars."
On the high end are requests to build bridges or underpasses for the light rail tracks as they cross busy intersections. Both St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie have asked for those to be considered, arguing they could relieve congestion and shave off travel time for the trains as well.
Minneapolis has pointed out that there are no sidewalks connecting the proposed Van White Station to the Walker Art Center or the Dunwoody Institute. Fuhrmann said addressing that would be relatively inexpensive.
"So it makes tremendous sense to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars to make those pedestrian connections to those neighborhood destinations just to the south of Van White Station," he said.
Fuhrmann said the Met Council can't make any promises about contingency fund spending yet, but he doesn't see anything wrong with cities making requests for it.
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, on the other hand, does see a problem.
"My feeling is these communities are playing a little bit of hardball, and the advocates of these light rail projects really don't want to make any waves," Look said. "And so they want to try and come to an agreement as quick and as soon as possible with little dissension. And if that costs an extra $200 million, then that's the cost of doing business. Well, I don't agree with that."
Look sits on the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which provides 30 percent of the money for light rail projects through a quarter cent metro area sales tax. He said if there is left over money from Southwest Light Rail's contingency fund, it should be returned to the funders: federal, state and county governments.
"This isn't just an all-out grab bag," he said. "Use the contingency for what contingencies are used for — in other words, unforeseen complications in the project, not add-ons."
The discussion about the Southwest Light Rail contingency fund is hypothetical at this point. The city of Minneapolis has just over a week to decide whether to support the project and has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Minneapolis officials have been negotiating in secret with the Met Council, and have not revealed much about what's on the city's wish list.
Disclosure: Minnesota Public Radio and the Metropolitan Council are negotiating ways to reduce noise and vibrations from the newly built light rail line outside MPR headquarters under a contract agreed to in 2009.