Officials balk at potential Southwest light rail line cuts

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, but could be cut.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The options for trimming the $2 billion price tag of the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail project aren't going over well with local officials from cities along the line.

Aiming to squeeze $341 million out of the budget, Metropolitan Council staff on Wednesday presented local leaders with about 50 possible cost-reduction measures. But the reaction from the local leaders highlights how difficult that task will be.

Last month, the Metropolitan Council revealed it had drastically underestimated the cost of the planned 16-mile light rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. A furious Gov. Mark Dayton said the ballooning price tag called into question whether the project was still viable.

Since then, planners have been looking for ways to make the rail line stick to its earlier $1.65 billion budget. For that to happen, cities along the line are going to have to go along with a downsized plan.

Peter Wagenius, an advisor to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, called the proposed cuts "extraordinary." He made it clear that Hodges would not accept reductions that would diminish service on the city's north side by cutting two of three planned stations there.

"North Minneapolis and serving north Minneapolis was a huge part of the argument for this alignment," he said.

Wagenius was especially critical of the possible elimination of the stop at Royalston Avenue, just west of Target Field. He said that station would provide a critical connection to several key bus lines and the planned C and D lines.

"How far are we going to make them walk?" Wagenius asked, referring to north Minneapolis commuters. "How much are we going to inconvenience them? How are they going to get there? Because the answer we heard — the answer Mayor Hodges and the rest of our negotiators heard — was Royalston, Royalston, Royalston."

Cutting the Royalston Station would save up to $7 million and eliminating the Penn Station stop on the north side would save as much as $16 million. But together they'd hardly dent the $341 million cost-reduction target.

Southwest light rail route
A map of the current proposal for the Southwest light rail route.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Council

Other options for making small trims include cutting back on landscaping, pedestrian bridges and public art. Planners also could eliminate or scale back some suburban park and ride ramps that could cost as much as $25 million.

The big savings, however, would come from shortening the line by removing stations in Eden Prairie. Each station eliminated from the end of the line cuts between $70 million and $185 million.

Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens already is resigned to giving up the last station at Mitchell Road. She also is willing to consider sacrificing the next one at the intersection of Highway 212 and Prairie Center Drive. But she doesn't want to go further than that, which would mean ending the line in an industrial area called the Golden Triangle before it reaches the Eden Prairie City Center.

"I would not support ending at Golden Triangle. I would not anticipate giving municipal consent to that," Tyra-Lukens said. "It's cutting off an awful lot of job access to people who need jobs and it's shortening the line to the point where it's not meeting the needs of our residents that live in lower-income housing, which tend to be clustered around some of the other stops."

The committee meets again in two weeks.

Adam Duininck, the chair of the Met Council, said Wednesday's discussion shows how difficult its choices are. He expects the deliberations to grow more contentious as planners and policy makers narrow down the list of cost-cutting options.

"It's going to be a challenge to figure out what to reduce that doesn't hurt the project and make it less of a project," Duininck said. "It's also going to be hard to reduce things that keeps the coalition together that have gotten us this far — the five cities and the county."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.