A conservative-dominated Legislature could still block the way, but the Twin Cites’ prospects for job growth brightened considerably when the long-planned Southwest Corridor light-rail line won a preliminary federal go-ahead last week.
Local government and business leaders hailed the decision to start the project on the road to a timeline six or seven years ahead when riders can board a train in Eden Prairie and take it 26 miles to downtown St. Paul without traffic worries. Along the way are job- and attraction-rich destinations such as Minnetonka’s Opus/Golden Triangle; Target Field, Target Center and the rest of downtown Minneapolis, plus the University of Minnesota’s main campus.
“Having Southwest LRT make the cut is incredibly important to our future economic development,” said Todd Klingel of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The project moved ahead of dozens of other transit proposals around the country to enter what’s called preliminary engineering, during which the Metropolitan Council will firm up plans for a maintenance facility, safety features and relocation of freight railroad tracks. The council says this will take about two years and complete 30 percent of the total design work.
When finished, the line should have 15.8 miles of double track, 17 new stations, 15 park-and-ride lots with space for 3,500 cars and 26 new light-rail vehicles. Nearly 30,000 weekday riders are projected by 2030, comparable with the popular Hiawatha LRT, which drew 10.5 million passengers last year.
With an estimated price tag of $1.25 billion, the Southwest LRT would overtake the $977 million Central Corridor light-rail line as Minnesota’s most expensive public works project ever. That’s likely to stir sticker shock in some quarters, particularly the Legislature, which will be asked to pay for 10 percent of the cost—$125 million. In 2009, it fronted $5 million to get the project off the ground.
Another 10 percent would come from Hennepin County, but the bulk of funding would be shouldered by the federal government ($625 million) and the Twin Cities quarter-cent transit sales tax ($375 million). Construction is expected to start in 2014, just as the Central LRT linking the two big downtowns begins operations.
Is it worth it? Throughout the conservative U.S. Southwest, even bigger light-rail systems are being built in Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego. Like the Twin Cities, these metropolises burgeoned after the age of heavy-rail subway and elevated trains that provide efficient mobility to old-growth places like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
In the 20th century, later-blooming regions like ours put most of their transportation efforts into roads, bridges and private cars, driving privately owned streetcar systems out of business in the process. The result has been congestion that chokes economic efficiency and can’t be fixed with more and more pavement. Offering travelers a choice other than getting behind the wheel benefits everyone, including drivers who will face less competing traffic.
But to make that choice widespread, we need a more complete rail transit system than one or two routes radiating from Minneapolis. For years, the Met Council has had lines on a map for nine more transitways that would make riding instead of driving an attractive option in nearly every corner of the Twin Cities. Those lines won’t become real without public leadership and support.
“This is an important milestone,” Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said of the preliminary engineering approval. “Southwest Corridor will generate strong ridership, serve as a catalyst for housing and economic development and build on the successes of Hiawatha and Central LRT.”
Added Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which oversees transit sales tax funds: “Southwest LRT will service more than 240,000 jobs … Transit is just good for our regional economy.”
The federal nod to the Southwest LRT is a welcome development, but hardly the last hurdle on the way to a world-class transportation system for the Twin Cities. Last week’s announcement doesn’t even guarantee funding from Washington. But it’s one small step on a journey of a thousand miles and many decades.