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Train to somewhere: Delays done, Southwest light rail rolls forward

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Local officials ceremoniously shovel dirt in the air.
State and local officials, including U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, Metropolitan Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, ceremoniously shovel dirt at the Southwest light rail groundbreaking in Hopkins Nov. 30, 2018.
Courtney Perry for MPR News file

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the Southwest Corridor light rail project took place in the middle of nowhere in Hopkins on a Friday afternoon in November. It was 30 degrees and the ground was still a little frozen, but a handful of Minnesota politicians looked like they couldn't be happier to be there shoveling dirt. 

It's a groundbreaking so many of them thought they'd never see. 

This year marked a huge milestone for the project. Construction is slated to begin on the line this winter. When it's finished, it will connect Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs. The line has been in the planning stages for at least three decades, or even longer, depending on who you ask. 

Former state senator Phyllis McQuaid
Former St. Louis Park Mayor and former state Sen. Phyllis McQuaid holds a file from 1980 that represents her initial work on the Southwest light rail project.
Courtney Perry for MPR News file

Former state legislator Phyllis McQuaid of St. Louis Park came to the groundbreaking with an initial report she did on the line. She proudly presented it to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "When she started working this, and she noted a few of the people weren't born: '1980: Light Rail Solutions' for this area," Klobuchar said, holding the report up. 

In November, the Federal Transit Administration issued a "letter of no prejudice" for the project, a small but significant step needed to secure half the cost of the nearly $2 billion needed to build the line. That price tag makes it the largest public works project in state history.

It also caps numerous setbacks, including ballooning costs, lawsuits, delayed contracts and opposition from politicians and neighbors alike. They repeatedly threatened to derail the 14.5-mile project. 

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was the person behind the scenes at every step making sure the whole thing didn't fall apart. 

Peter McLaughlin brought his own shovel.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin brought his own shovel from the Hiawatha groundbreaking in 2001 to the Southwest light rail project groundbreaking.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Sitting in his office in downtown Minneapolis, he remembers getting sucked into the light rail debate decades ago as a state legislator. Back then, it was over the Hiawatha Line, now known as the Blue Line. 

That project faced plenty of hurdles, but he admits Southwest light rail was even more challenging. 

"They say these things die a thousand tiny deaths before they succeed," he said. "There were times with Southwest light rail where it seemed nearer to death than some of the other lines."

McLaughlin had to go to battle with state legislators, where Republicans in control wanted to block funding for Southwest light rail. He also had to face DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who summoned him to the residence in 2015 after the total cost of the project swelled to more than $2 billion. 

"You get called to the governor's residence on 7:30 on a Sunday night...that's not usually a good meeting," he laughed. But he noted that was a critical moment for the project. "If governor Dayton hadn't stayed with us, it could have died." 

In the end, McLaughlin had to dissolve a transit board he helped create — known as the Counties Transit Improvement Board — in order to raise enough sales taxes to pay for the local share. He keeps a mug in his office: "CTIB: 2008-2017." 

But with the Southwest light rail victory, the state not only got another transit line, it's one step closer to having an entire network of transit options. 

Planned route for the Southwest light rail line
The planned route for the Southwest light rail line, as of May 2018.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Council

Southwest light rail will eventually become a 16-stop extension of the Green Line, part of a series of existing and planned train and bus rapid transit routes that leaders hope can meet the needs of a growing and increasingly car-adverse demographic in the Twin Cities metro area.

McLaughlin wants everyone to remember the big picture. 

"We're trying to create this network, and every line you add, you get more than the benefit of that line, because you get the synergy with the other lines," he said. 

Barring any other setbacks, the first riders will hop on a Southwest light rail train in 2023. 

Click on each of the green stops to read our previous coverage on the Southwest light rail.