Light rail planners seek economic development funding

Proposed Southwest LRT route map
This map shows the proposed route of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line. Click to enlarge.
Courtesy Metropolitan Council

Gov. Mark Dayton says the Southwest Light Rail Transit project is among his top transit priorities, but the Legislature adjourned without approving any money for the line.

Now, planners say they will try to keep the LRT on track with funding assistance from the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Other high-profile projects, including a new St. Paul Saints baseball stadium, are also seeking a piece of the roughly $47.5 million in development money granted to DEED by state lawmakers before the end of the session . Critical decisions about these development projects could happen in the next few weeks.

Metropolitan Council spokesperson Laura Baenen said she is unsure how much the council will ask for. Funding Southwest LRT is critical to preventing delays which, she said, "would expose the project to high construction costs and would delay the benefits of the line to the corridor communities."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The 15-mile route runs from downtown Minneapolis through the southwest suburbs and connects to other transit.

An environmental study of the route is underway. Southwest LRT has federal permission to begin preliminary engineering.

To get started, the project also has $47 million in local funds from 2009 state bonds, a transit-dedicated sales tax and the Hennepin County Regional Rail authority.

Proposed SWLRT route
The proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit route could run along the existing line at Excelsior Blvd. just east of Highway 169 in Hopkins, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

At least $14 million more is needed to continue preliminary engineering, said Bruce Nustad of the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce.

"There are businesses that are making investments in their retail shop or their corporate campus or their store and we'd like to be able to provide a little more certainty to the project for them," Nustad said.

This area of the metro is growing quickly. Metropolitan Council planners say there more than 200,000 existing jobs along the route. Another 60,000 new jobs are projected over the next 18 years.

The transit project will help move people to and from those jobs, Nustad said.

Proposed SWLRT route
Clients arrive at Opportunity Partners in Minnetonka, Minn. Wednesday, March 21, 2012. The proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line near Opportunity Partners could benefit many of the employees and clients, and ease the use of other public transportation including buses and Metro Mobility vans.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"You'd be hard-pressed to find another area of the state that is projected to grow by 60,000 jobs where there wouldn't be legislators and the business community and local governments all stepping up to say let's support those jobs," he said.

But Republican leaders this session did not approve $25 million for the Southwest LRT project. Moving forward, the Met Council will take its request to DEED.

It's not clear how long the decision could take. The agency is still figuring out how to distribute the money, said Monte Hanson from DEED.

"DEED will determine the amounts. It's not a lot of money, all things considered," Hanson said.

"How they'll break [$47.5 million] down in terms of how much a project could get, I don't know. Would they set a maximum amount? I don't know about that either."

DEED hopes to get the application process up and running in the next few weeks, Hanson said. A number of the state's largest development projects have looming construction deadlines.

This Met Council video shows the proposed line in action: