Rising costs of Southwest LRT has officials steamed

Southwest LRT
Some Minneapolis residents with the group LRT Done Right oppose a plan to co-locate both light rail and freight traffic along the Kenilworth corridor that currently is used by bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as freight trains. This photograph shows one of the "pinch points" along the trail where townhomes are close to the train tracks Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Officials representing five Twin Cities counties issued a stern signal today about the escalating costs of the planned Southwest Corridor light-rail project between downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

Calling the costs "ridiculous" and "unacceptable," the officials said they couldn't support a project with a price tag that has grown by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months.

Securing the backing of five metro counties is essential to the future of the Southwest Corridor. That's because the Counties Transit Improvement Board -- made up of Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington counties --- is expected to write checks for 30 percent of the project's costs.

One of the board's members, Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, said she's watched Southwest's price estimates balloon from about $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion under the most expensive scenario. That's a 46 percent increase. "When I first heard it, I was in a state of disbelief because that's an incredible amount of money for a project," Reinhardt said.

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Reinhardt said her disbelief then turned to frustration. As the project planners aim to fix a dilemma over where to put existing freight rail, they're adding on costs without trimming anywhere else, she said.

At a meeting today, Reinhardt and other county officials said the soaring Southwest estimates mean less money for transit projects in their districts.

"It goes beyond just the Southwest project. It goes to Bottineau. It goes to the East Metro, which is my area. I want to have a regional system," Reinhardt said. "And if we take this much extra money, it affects every other project in this region and it jeopardizes our regional system."

That frustration was shared by Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, whose area includes working-class suburban neighborhoods in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. He said the project is spending extraordinary amounts of time and energy to appease wealthy neighbors in Minneapolis.

"It would be hard for me to imagine that same sort of attention happening in parts of my district," Opat said. "I understand it, we listen to it. But at the end of the day, our decisions have to be based on the region and the rest of the people who live there."

Opat was referring to well-organized groups who live near arguably the most cherished lakes in Minneapolis. They're fiercely opposed to any plan to squeeze light-rail, freight rail and recreational trails next to each other along a narrow point in the Kenilworth corridor.

Some residents are demanding that the Metropolitan Council build a 30- to 50-foot-deep subway tunnel to hide the passenger trains. The deep tunnel is the most expensive option of three that light-rail planners are considering.

Because of its $330 million price tag, the tunnel can also be seen as a long shot. "I think the deep tunnel doesn't work," Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. "Flat out, doesn't work."

McLaughlin, who chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, said the next month and a half will be a do-or-die time for Southwest. State law requires the project to secure the consent of all five cities touching the line and Met Council officials hope to secure municipal consent by the end of the year. Residents in St. Louis Park oppose a plan to reroute freight traffic through their neighborhoods.

The insistence of Minneapolis to keep the Kenilworth bikeway puzzles outsiders like Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look. He questions why the bike path can't be moved to make room for freight trains and light rail.

"I think each of these city councils needs to identify the economic benefit that this rail line is going to bring to them," Look said. "If they want to torpedo it because of a bike and ped trail, that's certainly their decision, but I think at some point they'll come to their senses."

Politically speaking, there is a lot at stake for the transit board, which will likely seek an increase in the quarter-cent sales tax from the Legislature next year. Several members said the public would not swallow the idea of higher taxes if Southwest's costs continue to spiral out of control.

There is a possibility of yet another solution. Met Council officials say they been working with the Twin Cities and Western Railroad Company to reconsider any old proposals that might provide a path forward. Light-rail planners had intended to reroute freight traffic through St. Louis Park until the railroad company deemed that route unsafe. The current plans for a reroute through that suburb, however, are just as unpopular and contentious.

The Met Council wants to resolve the freight-train impasse by late September so that the project can stay on track. Construction could begin as early as 2015.