Panel backs cuts to rescue Southwest light rail

Commuter at Southwest Station
An assortment of cuts are on the table to trim costs for the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line. Here, a commuter walked at the SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie, Wednesday, April 29, 2015. The location had been a planned rail line stop, but that reality may be delayed.
Peter Cox | MPR News file

Updated 4:55 p.m. | Posted 10:56 a.m.

Twin Cities officials Wednesday backed $250 million in cuts to the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line, hoping to rein in the line's ballooning costs and save the project.

The package of cuts includes shortening the line by eliminating the final station at Mitchell Road in Eden Prairie, delaying a station at the Eden Prairie Mall and downsizing park-and-ride lots.

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Minneapolis would not lose any stations but would lose a $12 million proposed bike bridge.

The cuts agreed to Wednesday by the Corridor Management Committee, an advisory group, don't fill the entire budget gap. Officials also proposed using some creative accounting to close the budget gap while attracting more money from the federal government.

Hennepin County and several cities have also pledged to make additional local contributions, although Minneapolis on Wednesday pledged no extra cash.

The proposal must be approved by the full Metropolitan Council, which is expected to vote next week.

Planning for the Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie rail line was thrown into limbo in late April after Met Council officials acknowledged costs for the project had jumped to nearly $2 billion, $341 million more than previously forecast.

Much of the additional cost was blamed on ground conditions along the route and soil contamination in St. Louis Park and Hopkins.

Since then, planners have been looking for ways to make the rail line stick to its earlier $1.65 billion budget, although it was clear that meant agreeing to a downsized plan.

Local leaders, however, felt they couldn't solve the problem with cuts alone.

So during Wednesday's corridor committee meeting, officials began to ante up.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin told the cities represented around the table to open their wallets.

"This is a little bit like a fund drive folks," he said."I've watched enough public TV and turned off Minnesota Public Radio enough times that I think I know how to do this."

And just like a member drive, this one includes a matching grant.

If the project wins federal approval, the federal government will cover half the southwest light rail budget; local contributions will be matched dollar-for-dollar.

So one by one, the city leaders spoke up, starting with Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, who pledged 5.5 acres of city-owned land worth about $3 million to the project.

Hennepin County is contributing an extra $8 million in cash. Minnetonka pledged $2 million. Hopkins, $500,000.

St. Louis Park City Council Member Jake Spano was reluctant to give an exact figure, but said his city would pitch in, too.

"It's not unreasonable to think that there's a couple million dollars that city of St. Louis Park would be willing to invest in this," he said.

The Hennepin County Board and the various city councils will need to approve the contributions.

Wednesday's moves show stakeholders are willing to make sacrifices to save Southwest light rail, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said.

"What you saw was people stepping up and responding and being productive and forward looking," he said. "I hope that translates to a message of momentum to the public and to the Legislature so they know this project is really critical to our future."

Minneapolis won't be writing any checks, however.

The city has a strained relationship with Southwest Light Rail. Last year it grudgingly accepted a plan that would keep freight trains running near the light rail tracks as they pass between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

It struck a deal with the Met Council that saved the project $30 million.

Peter Wagenius, an aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges, said the mayor is willing to give up a bike bridge that was part of the project, but after that, Minneapolis is done making concessions.

The cuts and extra money from the cities and counties still don't meet the $341 million cost-reduction target.

So planners say they'll use an accounting maneuver to classify the land Hennepin County is already contributing to the project as part of the budget.

That will allow them to extract another $30 million in matching funds from the federal government.

That still leaves a budget gap of several million dollars, but leaders say the solution is now within reach.