Light rail supporters cheered when the federal government on the proposed Southwest Transitway, but planners still have many obstacles to overcome before advocates can rest easy.
The fed’s preliminary approval amounts to about 30 percent of the overall process, Hopkins planners said at a Tuesday City Council work session.
The Met Council, which oversees the project, will select a consultant for that first phase, said Steve Stadler, Hopkins’ public works director. It should be started by April 2012 and take 12 to 18 months to complete. Each of the communities served by the project will need to give their consent.
If all goes well, the $1.25 billion project—which will run from downtown Minneapolis through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Minnetonka to Eden Prairie—will be operational by 2017, although some planners have pegged 2018 as a more likely start date.
Yet funding arrangements must be lined up before the project gets final approval.
The federal government would pick up half of the overall costs. The approval for preliminary engineering gave the Southwest project a big boost toward securing that money. Although that approval didn’t come with funds, it meant that the project was competing against only about a dozen projects around the country instead of the 100 or so projects it had been competing against.
State and local money will pay for the remainder. A special seven-county metro sales tax dedicated to rail projects will cover 30 percent of the cost. Hennepin County will pay 10 percent of the cost. And Minnesota will pick up the remaining 10 percent.
The state’s contribution has created the most uncertainties. During the Legislature’s last session, Republicans in both the House and Senate criticized light rail—notably transportation committee head Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee), who pledged before the session to stop the Southwest light rail line "in its tracks."
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison, who represents Hopkins, said the recent federal approval was “very good news and validates 10 years of effort to get this done”—but added that she is “absolutely concerned” about the state’s commitment.
“We will need to rally further support for the next session of the Legislature because we have to have the state as a partner in order to make this project happen,” she said.
Funding isn’t the only challenge. Freight rail reroute issues in St. Louis Park have not yet been resolved and could hold up the rest of the project.
Plans call for light rail trains to run through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, but a freight line already exists there. One proposal has called for those freight trains to be relocated to a line that runs through the heart of St. Louis Park. The majority of the St. Louis Park council opposes that plan, instead pushing for freight and light rail to exist together in the Kenilworth Corridor.
When a decision will get made—and who exactly will make it—remains unclear. The Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority, which is made up of Hennepin County commissioners, has seemed supportive of the reroute idea, but no formal vote has been taken.
Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who represents St. Louis Park, said the HCRRA will likely discuss the matter in more detail in October, but she added that she doesn’t know what action—if any—will be taken then.
Dorfman did say that rerouting the trains seems to make more sense than leaving them in the Kenilworth Corridor.
“It's hard to see how co-location is good for St. Louis Park,” the commissioner said in an email, adding that it would create traffic problems at the new light-rail stations because freight traffic would be coming into town near the light-rail line.
Dorfman also expressed frustration at a in August in connection to the freight rail reroute process.
“(The appeal) has hindered our opportunity to work with them to jointly develop a robust mitigation plan for the neighborhoods impacted by the freight rail relocation,” she said. “The sooner we develop a city-county freight rail mitigation plan, the better for both the impacted neighborhoods and for the LRT project. The delay caused by the appeal is unfortunate. It … could take nine to 12 months.”
St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs countered by saying he doesn’t see why the appeal process can’t play out separately in court while the two sides meet.
“I don’t know why it would be throwing a wrench into anything,” he said. “We could certainly be having a discussion (with the county) on resolving (the freight rail issue).”
Despite the challenges ahead, optimism remains. Jennifer Munt, Hopkins’ representative on the Met Council, said the federal government’s recent approval is an important step toward a regional rail system and “is proof we know how to make rail succeed."
Another Met Council member, St. Louis Park’s Jim Brimeyer, said the approval is “huge. It moves everything off zero and really accelerates the process”—although he, too, worried about the state’s commitment.