Another light rail project moves forward


by Conrad deFiebre | August 11, 2009 • New cost and ridership projections for a proposed Southwest light rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie show the delicate balance transit planners must try to achieve. In general, the cheapest routes draw the fewest riders and the most expensive ones get the most people on board

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Two routes through the commercial heart of downtown and south Minneapolis would attract strong ridership, much of it from folks now commuting by car, according to a report by Hennepin County consultants. But the capital costs of those alternatives, driven up by right-of-way acquisition and subway tunneling down Nicollet Avenue, could be double that of other options — as much as $1.8 billion for a 14-mile line.

By contrast, if the light rail followed an existing Hennepin County bike-walk trail all the way from the new Twins ballpark to Mitchell Road and Hwy. 5 in Eden Prairie, the capital cost in 2015 dollars ranges as low as $850 million. Operating costs would be lower, too, by as much as $10 million a year, but riders would be several thousand fewer a day. Still, that route would easily meet cost-effectiveness standards now required for federal funding. (There’s a push in Congress to scrap those Bush-era rider-benefit standards in favor of ones that also consider new real estate development spurred by transit.)

The apparent happy medium is found in a route that follows the same trail through the Minneapolis lakes district, St. Louis Park and Hopkins, then veers south on new right-of-way to serve office and commercial centers in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Its ridership and travel time savings would match or beat the other alternatives — up to 30,000 trips a day, comparable to the Hiawatha line — while keeping costs within shouting distance of the federal cap at up to $1.25 billion to build and $25 million a year to operate.

The report is being presented at a series of public forums in neighborhoods along the proposed routes.It is a very early step in a long process of planning and decision-making that could make the Southwest Transitway a reality in six to eight years.

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