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Met Council: Business booming along Twin Cities light rail lines

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LRT along Hiawatha
A northbound Blue Line light rail travels toward downtown Minneapolis.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2014 file

Economic development along the existing and planned light rail lines in the Twin Cities is soaring past initial expectations, Metropolitan Council and St. Paul city officials said Tuesday.

Original projections called for $7 billion in development along the Green Line over 30 years. But in roughly two years of operation its presence has already delivered $4.2 billion in projects, according to data collected by the Met Council.

"It shows that these investments in transit pay big dividends beyond just the ridership, beyond just the environmental impacts and the other reasons why we invest in transit," said Met Council Chair Adam Duininck. "They actually really reshape communities and connect people to the larger transit network here in the region."

The trend along the existing corridor is mirrored in other areas still in the planning stages. The Met Council has been tracking development along the Blue Line extension, a planned 13-mile run from downtown Minneapolis to the northwest suburbs, and the Southwest Corridor light rail project, a 14.5 mile route to serve communities west of Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

Met Council officials saw $430 million in development, either finished or underway, on the Southwest Corridor route. The Blue Line extension, also known as Bottineau LRT, has seen $358 million of development in various stages.

Despite the faster-than-expected growth, planning the transit projects hasn't been without controversy. The Met Council is in the midst of a legal battle with an environmental advocacy group regarding the Southwest Corridor, the largest transit project in the state's history.

The Lakes and Parks Alliance filed the federal lawsuit in 2014 claiming the Met Council violated federal laws when it picked the Southwest Corridor route that would bring light rail from a shallow tunnel up to a bridge between two popular lakes in south Minneapolis. The plan also keeps freight trains besides a bike trail in the city's Kenilworth Corridor.

The lawsuit alleges the Met Council jumped to this option and didn't follow federal laws that require transit officials to study all other alternatives before picking one. The Lakes and Parks Alliance has been asking the court to grant them permission to review Met Council records to prove their case, but the Met Council continues to appeal.

Met Council officials say co-locating freight and light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor was the best option for Southwest light rail. The agency argues that it's not required to release any documents while a federal environmental review of the project is under way.

"Southwest has had its share of challenges but not unlike any other large public works project of this size and scope," Duininck said. "None of the options that we looked at would've been any better."

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim hasn't issued a final ruling on the case.

Duininck said he doesn't expect the lawsuit to halt the $1.79 billion project that's already secured some local funding. Construction is set to begin in 2017. The project would get a $900 million federal injection only if it receives $135 million in state funding this legislative session.

The development progress helps build a case that these transit investments mean more beyond transporting people around the region, Duininck said.

"When you think about the economic impacts and the economic development potential here to locate housing more efficiently, to connect people to jobs more efficiently and effectively, to meet the travel demand that people are asking for," he said, "I think these numbers help reinforce that."

Critics say the transit picture leaves out a key demographic of the Twin Cities population. The group "Light Rail Done Right," which comprises of over 400 members from all over the Twin Cities, has been raising concerns about equity, transit costs and safety issues.

The current light rail routes "conspicuously" skirt communities of color and areas where people are transit dependent, a concern for Light Rail Done Right member Mary Pattock.

"What would happen if they are successful in putting in this particular configuration is that they will have hard-wired into our community an architecture of poverty that will persist for the next century," she said.