What's next for the Southwest light rail project?

Commuter at SouthWest Station
A commuter at the SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie, Minn. The station is a planned stop on the Southwest light rail line, but growing costs for the project have put the LRT project, or at least parts of it, in jeopardy.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Now what?

With news that the Southwest Corridor light rail project is now expected to cost $2 billion, officials are scrambling to bring down costs and make the project more palatable.

The 16-mile line would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

One group of people supporters may have to convince are the commuters themselves.

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Tim Fox has ridden the Southwest Metro Transit bus for the past four years and he doesn't see the need for light rail.

"It seems like it's a lot of cost for something that's more fun than necessary," he said. "It seems like there's other places they could use it more than Eden Prairie."

Fox said he'd be fine if they scrap the project altogether.

Kenilworth corridor
The Kenilworth corridor lies along the proposed route of the Southwest LRT in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

That option is on the table, Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said Monday, after learning that the new estimated price tag had risen by $341 million.

So what's pushing up the costs?

New environmental tests showed more pollution than expected on the route in Hopkins and St. Louis Park. And engineers would need to do more work to shore up soft soil where the track would go.

There's also a one-year delay that would add about $50 million to the final cost.

Longtime Southwest supporter Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner who also serves on the committee that advises the Metropolitan Council on the design and construction of the light rail line, said changing the route would be too expensive.

He said engineers are already analyzing different ways to cut costs.

"Do you eliminate stations? Do you shorten the route? Do you eliminate vehicles? There's a list and they need to be generating that list right now," he said. "I think we need to act quickly to get that list and then make some hard decisions."

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who serves on the Southwest Corridor Management Committee, said one station that could go is the last stop in Eden Prairie — one of three in the city — because that could be added on at a later date. He said that could save $100 million.

"I'm not trying to tell Eden Prairie they should take the hit here, but I think it means that all of us have to look at what we can do to make sure that this project works because of its importance on a regional basis," he said.

Southwest light rail route
A map of the proposed Southwest light rail route.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Council

Critics of the light rail plan say the new cost estimate should force a complete overhaul of the project — including a reroute.

"It's ridiculous, the amount of money that they're putting into this. And the cost creep, we get numb to that," said Mary Pattock, of the Lakes and Parks Alliance. The organization filed a federal lawsuit against the project last year.

"There comes time when you have to look at the cost/benefit and say, 'Wait, enough is enough.' There's something fundamentally wrong with this project. And I think we're at that spot now," she said.

Still, some commuters say the project shouldn't be abandoned.

Derrick Haywood, who commutes from north Minneapolis to Eden Prairie for his overnight sanitation shift at a Deli Express, said he would use the light rail frequently.

"I commute here Monday through Friday and on Saturday I have to catch a ride to work," he said. "So I mean, as far as the commute goes, I would like to be commuted on the weekend, even if it's just in the morning or at night. But I think a train, a railway system, would be pretty convenient."

A Met Council spokesperson said the Corridor Management Committee will get an update on the Southwest light rail project Wednesday.