Metropolitan Council staff on Tuesday released a mix-and-match menu of options for cutting at least $341 million from the cost of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project.
The goal is to slim the SWLRT project back down to a total budget of about $1.65 billion after it was revealed late last month that a combination of delays and poor soil conditions had pushed the anticipated cost to nearly $2 billion. The schedule set by Met Council calls for project changes to be finalized by early July.
The fastest route to the cost-savings target runs through Eden Prairie, the southernmost city on the proposed 16-mile extension of the Green Line. Cutting between one and four of the five proposed stations there would net the project an estimated $115 million–$375 million. It would also reduce by 1,000–6,600 boardings projected weekday ridership, which is expected to reach 36,000 by 2040.
Local officials serving on the Corridor Management will consider many smaller tweaks, as well, from reducing the size of some suburban park-and-rides to slashing budgets for landscaping around tracks and public art at stations. Dropping any one of the 17 stations would also cut millions from the budget.
Project manager Mark Fuhrman said any changes must not reduce the safety or security of the line or further delay its opening, which has already been pushed back to 2020. Met Council staff are also wary of cuts that significantly decrease access to jobs or opportunities for development along the route, changes that might endanger its “medium-high” rating in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.
“Whatever we do, we should keep foremost in mind that we are in a competition for federal dollars, here,” Fuhrman said.
Federal funds are expected to cover half the total project costs, but SWLRT has to prove its worth against transit projects being planned in other parts of the country.
In developing its list of more than four dozen potential changes, delays and other adjustments to the project, Fuhrman’s staff also calculated how much it would cost to add project elements back in at a later date. No federal matching funds can be expected for those later additions, Fuhrman added.
The sticker shock was felt at the state capitol after SWLRT’s escalating costs were revealed last month, and after meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton new Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said all options were on the table for the project.
“It’s important to keep the options open now because the next conversation in two weeks is going to be more contentious,” Duininck said, referring to the next meeting of the Corridor Management Committee on June 3.
There was a preview of what lies ahead when Peter Wagenius, who represents Minneapolis on the committee, expressed surprise that the elimination of some Minneapolis stations was on the table at all. Those stations were key to winning Minneapolis’ begrudging approval of the SWLRT route after six closed-door mediation sessions with between city and Met Council leaders.
Wagenius, a policy aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges, said officials were in part swayed by the promise of improving low-income Minneapolis residents’ access to suburban jobs along the light-rail route. But that access was contingent on improved Metro Transit bus service between North Minneapolis and the light rail stations.
Wagenius said the idea that stations closest to the North Side could be cut without significant impact on ridership and job access “directly contradicts” statements made during mediation.
The Met Council is expected to consider cost-cutting suggestions from the Corridor Management Committee on July 1 and then vote on an adjusted scope for the project a week later, on July 8.