Committee debates light rail cuts in Eden Prairie, Minneapolis

Community leaders focus attention on Eden Prairie SWLRT stations, but Minneapolis' Penn Station may be deferred

A group of community leaders continued to focus on several stations in Eden Prairie as it neared a July deadline for finalizing cuts to the nearly $2-billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

Debate among Corridor Management Committee members Wednesday also left open the possibility construction of Penn Station in Minneapolis could be deferred until sometime after the line opens in 2020. It’s just one of the project elements in play as committee members attempt to lower the budget to a target of $1.65 billion by identifying $341 million or more in savings.

Terminating the line at Town Center Station in Eden Prairie — two stations and more than a mile short of the original proposal — would net the project $364 million–$406 million in savings, depending on the exact location of the station. Those estimates prepared by Metropolitan Council staff also count on deferred construction of Penn Station in Minneapolis and changes to a number of park-and-rides near other stations.

The shorter line would still attract an estimated 31,400 weekday riders in 2040, according to Met Council estimates. With SWLRT in a national competition for federal transit funding, the goal is to keep that forecast in the range of at least 29,000–30,000 boardings.

An alternative proposal offered by Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens would defer construction of Town Center Station and shift the terminus west to Southwest Station. That plan hits the target for ridership but falls short on cost savings.

Lukens argued her plan was “more consistent with the original vision” for SWLRT because Southwest Station provides better access to jobs and is an established transit hub. Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb backed Lukens on the latter point, saying Town Center was a less convenient transit link.

“There are definitely operational benefits by having a terminus at Southwest Station,” Lamb said.

Those scenarios all count on saving $12 million–$14 million by deferring construction of Penn Station in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. But Minneapolis leaders strongly oppose giving up a station they say was crucial to winning the city’s support. That support was partly based on the promise that bus connections to Penn and other Minneapolis stations would help low-income residents access suburban jobs.

Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins said Wednesday she agreed deferring Penn was “shortsighted.” Higgins described the station as a “gateway” to North Minneapolis.

The scenarios under review by Met Council staff also eliminate a proposed North Cedar Lake Trail bridge near Penn Station that is intended to carry bicyclists and pedestrians over light rail tracks, replacing it with an at-grade crossing. The price tag on the bridge is another $12 million–$14 million.

Arguing in favor of the bridge, Peter Wagenius, policy aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges, said Cedar Lake Trail ridership in places exceeds that of Northstar Commuter Rail line, adding that many cyclists use the trail to commute to jobs. Bicycling is a legitimate means of transportation and should be treated as such, Wagenius said.

The bridge was just one of several bicycle and pedestrian improvements Met Council staffers pulled from the proposed project budget but included on a list of potential “add-backs.” Wagenius said they should stay in the budget.

“No matter what city these are located in, they benefit people along the whole corridor in huge numbers,” he said.

The committee is scheduled to meet July 1 to finalize a list of project changes it will then forward to the Met Council. The Met Council plans to vote on the full project scope and budget July 8.