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Feds release final environmental review of Southwest light rail

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Commuter at SouthWest Station
The SouthWest Station remains the last stop on the Southwest Corridor light rail line after cuts were approved July 8, 2015.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015

Updated: 5:43 p.m. | Posted: 12:38 p.m.

Plans for the Southwest Corridor light rail project have passed another milestone: The Federal Transit Authority has published the 17,000-page final environmental impact statement for the proposed Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie line.

The document marks one of the final steps before the Metropolitan Council decides whether to move ahead with the project. A decision is likely by late summer.

The project is still subject to a federal lawsuit by those opposed to running the trains through the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis alongside freight rail and a bike trail in a narrow stretch between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

A group of parks advocates, the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, question the need to run the line alongside the freight tracks and want to explore other alternatives. 

Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the group, contends the latest analysis confirms the reasons they oppose the project. 

"We believe that the document clearly strengthens our lawsuit," she said. "First of all, it admits for the first time, and unequivocally, that the route will damage the Minneapolis chain of lakes."

In response, the Met Council said, "The project has conducted in-depth, independent studies on potential impacts to the lakes. These studies show that the project will not negatively impact water levels or quality of the lakes. Further, the Metropolitan Council will closely monitor groundwater and other short-term impacts during construction of the project."

Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said Friday that the FTA document release shows the plan is on track to grow the region's light rail system.

Planned Southwest light rail route
The planned route for the Southwest light rail line, as of April 2016.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

"We know there is one neighborhood that has been opposed to it from the beginning and have fought it pretty hard," he said. "But up and down the corridor, the Southwest line enjoys a significant amount of support from all the cities, the county and from businesses."

The $1.8 billion, 14.5 mile project still needs $135 million from the state Legislature in order to tap nearly $900 million in federal transit funding. It remains the subject of some contention at the Capitol as lawmakers push toward the end of the legislative session.

GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt on Friday reiterated that his caucus opposes additional funding for  Southwest light rail but added that he's still willing to talk about it with Democrats.

"If they feel like that's a priority, they need to convince us, just like they need to convince the public," said Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

The next step for planners will be a final Record of Decision and Determination of Adequacy, state and federal notices that the Met Council wants to move ahead with the project. 

Those are expected in late July or early August. There will be an application for final engineering later this year and a request for full funding next year.

As those steps are completed, preparations for construction could start a year from now, with heavy construction running through 2017, 2018 and 2019. The trains could begin running in 2020 if the planning and funding are all approved.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.

Editor's note (Friday, May 13): A previous version of this story included an outdated SWLRT map.