Cities home in on light rail cuts

Committee members debate options for cutting $341 million from the projectÂ’s budget

Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said Southwest light rail cost savings must be balanced against ridership impacts. Credit: Dylan Thomas

The five cities along the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line began to home in Wednesday on the cuts it will take to reduce the project’s budget by roughly $341 million.

Local officials serving on the Corridor Management Committee are attempting to spread the pain, but it’s also becoming clear a shorter line is a cheaper line. Eden Prairie, at the western end of the 16-mile transit corridor, is likely to lose one or more stations as the current $2-billion estimated cost is pulled back to a target of about $1.65 million

Cutting the project short in Eden Prairie “certainly has to be a part of the equation as we go through this exercise,” Jim Alexander, director of design and engineering for SWLRT, told the committee as project staff presented several cost-cutting scenarios Wednesday. The committee is expected to present a list of recommended project changes to the Metropolitan Council for a vote in early July.

Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said the cuts couldn’t dramatically reduce SWLRT ridership, which was projected to reach 36,200 weekday boardings by 2040 if the full line were built. The goal is to keep weekday ridership levels at 29,000–30,000 boardings so that the project’s “medium-high” rating with the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t slip and endanger SWLRT’s shot at crucial federal funding, which is expected to cover 50 percent of project costs.

Under one scenario developed by project staff, SWLRT would run all the way to Southwest Station in Eden Prairie on Technology Drive west of Prairie Center Drive, the second-to-last stop on the western end. But to get the line that far west, engineers would have to eliminate all of the suburban park and rides, and Minneapolis and Eden Prairie would lose three stations apiece.  Alexander said “ridership plummets” under that scenario, and SWLRT would probably lose eligibility for FTA funding.

Another scenario eliminated three of five Eden Prairie stations, ending the line at Golden Triangle Station, located on West 70th Street between Shady Oak Road and Flying Cloud Drive. That hit the budget target, but staff noted it unfairly located all the major cuts in Eden Prairie.

Although no votes were taken, members of the Corridor Management Committee seemed to generally agree a better option was to cut two of the 17 proposed stations, ending the line at Eden Prairie’s Town Center Station — either on Eden Road between Flying Cloud Drive and Prairie Center Drive or shifted about 1,500 feet east down Flying Cloud Drive. Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens said Town Center Station serves the city’s “most transit-dependent population,” but she also made a case for keeping Southwest Station, an established transit hub near jobs and housing.

Even if committee members agree on making Town Center Station the line’s western terminus, they would still have to agree to a variety of cuts elsewhere in the project to reach the budget reduction goal. Those other cuts could include shrinking the fleet of light rail vehicles; eliminating or delaying construction of park and rides; slashing budgets for landscaping, art and bicycle and pedestrian access; or even dropping stations farther east.

Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider did just that, sharing a document Wednesday that builds off of the Met Council-developed proposal to end the line at Town Center Station. It mixes and matches other cost-saving measures — cutting some park and rides, reducing the budget for a Hopkins light rail vehicle operations and maintenance facility and deferring construction of Minneapolis’ 21st Street Station — to hit the $341-million target.

But any proposal to reduce stations in Minneapolis is likely to encounter stiff opposition from city leaders, who only grudgingly accepted the current SWLRT alignment after mediation with Met Council. Over Minneapolis’ objections, light rail will run alongside freight rail and a popular bicycle and pedestrian path through the narrow Kenilworth Corridor.

Peter Wagenius, an aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges who represents Minneapolis on the committee, expressed his surprise that the committee would even consider dropping Royalston or Penn stations, which were included as potential cuts in some the scenarios shared Wednesday. SWLRT’s potential to connect low-income urbanites to suburban jobs was a major selling point, and both of those stations were pitched as access points for the city’s North Side.

“If people want to drag this project backwards into the freight routing debate — I want to be clear that’s not what the city of Minneapolis is recommending — but if people want to drag the project back into the freight routing debate, that’s your choice,” Wagenius said. “But if you do, we’ll go there.”

Hennepin County commissioners Jan Callison and Peter McLaughlin said they didn’t hear anyone making that suggestion. McLaughlin said Royalston and Penn should come off the list of potential cuts, but reminded committee members there were tough choices ahead.

“I thought the idea of this spread sheet was a comprehensive list,” he said, referring to the list of cost-saving measures. “Put them all down. Stare at it. Deal with it.”

The committee will continue its discussion June 24 and plans to finalize its list by July 1. Under the current schedule, suggested cuts will be presented to the Met Council that same afternoon and come back for a vote July 8.