Officials willing to shorten Southwest light rail line

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Commuter at SouthWest Station
A commuter is seen at the SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie, Minn., Wednesday, April 29, 2015. The station is currently a planned stop on the Southwest light rail line.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Updated: 6:45 p.m. | Posted: 2:26 p.m.

The troubled Southwest Corridor light rail project won a crucial show of support from elected officials in the Twin cities metro area on Wednesday.

City and county leaders overseeing the project say they want to find a way to drive down its rising cost instead of scrapping the project altogether. But trimming $341 million from the budget won't be easy.

The estimated price tag of the project, a 16-mile line that would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, ballooned to nearly $2 billion last week after the Metropolitan Council announced that delays and poor soil conditions were driving up costs.

Gov. Mark Dayton called the increase "appalling" and questioned the project's viability.

Members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which would provide 30 percent of the funding for the project, say they want to keep the budget at $1.65 billion.

Several local elected leaders say they'd be willing to shorten the proposed rail line to control its skyrocketing budget.

Removing the final Mitchell Street station in Eden Prairie could save more than $100 million. Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens said she would consider giving up the station if it would save the project.

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

"We understand that in the efforts to get this project accomplished there might have to be some flexibility," Tyra-Lukens said. "So we would be flexible to entertaining some options on that end station. But whether or not that's going to happen, whether or not it's enough of a cost savings, we will just have to see."

Abandoning the project would be a mistake, Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison said. She called the Southwest rail line a critical project for the region.

"We have been committed to this project for decades. When it goes forward, it's going to be a credit to the way this region works together and these communities in particular," Callison said. "I firmly believe that we can find a way out of this, and we will meet the expectations that this project will be cost-effective — and it will create the communities that we all want to create in our region."

Planners will present options for reducing the project's budget in two weeks.

But earlier on Wednesday, Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan doubted that it would be possible to cut the project's cost.

"There's a lot more of this project that remains to be designed, and a lot more issues we have to resolve and a lot more potential for the cost overruns to actually exceed the $341 million we've already seen," Egan said. "They may make the $341 million figure paltry in comparison."

Although eliminating stations at the end of the line in Eden Prairie would reduce costs, that could reduce potential ridership and make Southwest light rail less attractive to federal funders.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said making changes like that can cause other complications for the project.

"I called it at least three-dimensional chess, because there are certain investments you can make that can have an effect on ridership," McLaughlin said. "And if you have an effect on ridership that affects our competitiveness in getting the federal money. But you've got to strike a balance here."

The Met Council also is trying to determine whether enhanced bus service would be more cost effective.

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