The Central Corridor Light Rail Transit project is on time and on budget, while the proposed Southwest line is far from certain.
Those were the messages shared by Met Council personnel with the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government.
Mark Fuhrmann, deputy general manager for Metro Transit, said the $957 million line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul is still on track to open in 2014. The project was 74 percent complete through August
At a Sept. 25 commission meeting, business representatives spoke about how they have been negatively affected by construction of the 11-mile line, including customers unable to easily access businesses. However, council representatives were not given a chance to respond at that time.
Given that opportunity, Fuhrmann spoke of how the council has worked with local businesses to address on-street parking impacts, including a $1.25 million parking grant program to help create additional spaces; fines for construction vehicles parked in wrong places; when intersections were closed or had lanes reduced; and fixing sometimes confusing signage.
Robin Caufman, the council’s assistant program director for administration, communication and public involvement, spoke of how the council has helped businesses by going door-to-door to provide updates, featuring a different business in weekly construction updates, providing extra signage to indicate retailers and restaurants are open and spending $1.2 million on a business marketing program.
The council has set aside $4 million in loans for small businesses. Since 2011, more than 130 business loans, totaling $2.1 million, have been allocated along the line. The maximum amount is $20,000 per business that demonstrates revenue loss. Twenty percent of the loan is forgiven for each year the business remains along the corridor.
“The project has improved greatly over 2011,” Fuhrmann said, adding that he would give the project thus far a grade of B or B-plus.
No earth has been yet moved for the proposed $1.25 billion Southwest LRT that would run along a 15-mile route between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis. However, the proposed project received some good news earlier this month when President Obama instructed federal agencies to streamline the environmental review needed to build the line. If the route comes to fruition, work is scheduled to begin in 2015 with a 2018 opening.
Fuhrmann said this line will provide more access and greater mobility when combined with the Center Corridor and Hiawatha lines. Projected weekday ridership totals almost 30,000, which is comparable to the Hiawatha line.
Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Savage) questioned that number, noting the proposed line does not have the major destinations, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or the Mall of America. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville) expressed concern that the state could end up subsidizing the route if projections do not equal reality.
The federal government is expected to fund $625 million of the line’s construction costs, the regional Counties Transit Improvement Board $375 million, and the state and Hennepin County each $125 million. Thus far, the state has committed only $7 million.
Fuhrman assured members the project is not a foregone conclusion, noting the federal government has only approved preliminary engineering for the project. Federal approval of entering the final design phase is not expected for a couple of years, and the federal government would need to sign off and execute full funding — likely in 2015. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available for public review and comment through Dec. 11.
“From a global perspective, the (Federal Transit Administration) will only grant approval for these projects to move into that preliminary engineering stage of those projects they believe will be successful and have merit and will ultimately be a wise and productive investment of federal dollars,” Fuhrmann said. “Southwest LRT is my eighth project of this kind that I have worked on over the last decades and each of those projects as they were approved into preliminary engineering proceeded to the final design, proceeded to the full funding grant, made it through all three of those steps successfully.”