Crucial Southwest light rail vote delayed by months

Freight rail track
The proposed tunnel would be built alongside this freight track.
MPR Photo/Liala Helal

A crucial vote on the embattled Southwest light rail project that was expected on Wednesday will be delayed by two to three months.

The decision to put off the Metropolitan Council vote came following a Tuesday morning meeting between Gov. Mark Dayton and several local, regional and state officials, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Southwest project staff will use the extra time to answer questions about a plan to weave the passenger trains underground in tunnels, Rybak said. They'll also look for options to re-route existing freight trains from the Kenilworth Corridor, he added.

"At the end of the day, if we can say we don't have any other options and this won't harm the lakes, then I'll help make this happen," Rybak said of the project. "We can't answer those questions now."

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Others warned that the delay could jeopardize what would be the state's biggest public works project yet.

A joint statement from the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce expressed disappointment in the decision: "This delay imperils that federal support and could mean tens of millions of dollars in increased costs and a longer wait for the 10 million annual riders and 60,000 private sector jobs that will be served by the line."

Rybak, a longtime supporter of Southwest LRT, cast the sole "no" vote last week at an advisory board meeting over concerns about the tunnel plan's potential effects on Kenilworth, a scenic corridor already home to a popular bike trail and freight trains.

The tunnel option has drawn criticism from Minneapolis city officials, residents and some state lawmakers.

If the Met Council were to approve the tunnel plan Wednesday, it would have likely put the project on a rocky and unprecedented path.

Several Minneapolis city council members have said they would refuse what"s known as municipal consent — approvals that the Met Council is seeking from all five cities touching the line.

Officials who attended Tuesday's private meeting with Dayton cast the delay in the best possible light, saying it will help avert a possible train wreck at the city and possibly legislative levels.

"I don't want to sound like a negotiator of Middle East peace here, but it is a pathway forward — a defined pathway forward," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. "I think that's a positive step."

Officials still hope to build consensus on the project in time to seek funding from lawmakers in next year's legislative session, McLaughlin added. A Met Council spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The skinny on Southwest light rail

The Southwest LRT line, or green line extension, will run 15.8 miles from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. It will be the third light rail line, following Hiawatha (blue line) and Central Corridor LRT (green line).

Cost: Estimated at more than $1.5 billion - funded by a mix of federal, state and local sources.

Ridership: By 2030, 30,000 rides are expected every weekday, on average.

Travel time: From Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, about 38 minutes.

Construction: Scheduled to begin in 2015, with service expected to begin in 2018.