On track for rail

Study group identifies possible routes for the Southwest Transitway

Almost two decades after county officials first envisioned a light-rail corridor connecting the southwestern suburbs with Downtown, an advisory committee is expected to recommend a route for the project later this month.

A study group has identified three possible routes between Downtown and Eden Prairie that would also pick up commuters in Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka and Southwest.

Whichever path the committee endorses, the price tag will likely sound massive to many taxpayers, somewhere between $865 million and $1.4 billion depending on whether officials will need to build tunnels or purchase right-of-way.

So how do we pay for this?

It won't be easy, transportation experts said, but it's likely we'll find a way. The project will face intense competition for government money and might need to wait in line several years unless state lawmakers approve a new funding source.

Minnesota voters approved a constitutional amendment last month requiring at least 40 percent of motor vehicle sales tax revenue go toward transit projects. The measure will be phased in over five years and is expected to eventually generate an additional $120 million per year for transit in the state.

It's unlikely the Southwest light-rail corridor would see any of that money before 2020, though. The Metropolitan Council has published its priorities for the sales tax dollars, and they include improving its existing bus service and constructing its first-tier corridors: Central, Northstar and three bus rapid-transit routes.

Dave Van Hattum, policy and advocacy program manager for Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul nonprofit, said he worries some legislators will think the amendment means they've taken care of transportation. Their message: &#8220This doesn't solve the full needs, but it gives us a critical step in the right direction.”

A one-third-cent metro-area sales tax would likely be enough to build all of the region's planned transit corridors within the next 15 years, Van Hattum said. His organization has been lobbying unsuccessfully for the sales tax for a few years and will continue during the next legislative session.

&#8220Without another funding source, there isn't a lot of money to go around,” Van Hattum said. &#8220It doesn't take care of Southwest.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak has repeatedly voiced support for a metro sales tax, most recently at a transportation speech last month at the Central Library. According to a draft of the city's 2007 legislative agenda, the city plans to lobby for new revenue for transportation improvements and funding for Metropolitan Council's second-tier corridor projects, which include Southwest.

&#8220If we're going to have a comprehensive regional transit system, we can't wait a decade between each project,” said Gail Dorfman, a Hennepin County commissioner and member of the Southwest advisory committee. Other cities, including Denver, Phoenix and San Diego, have approved regional sales taxes and are already leveraging that money to build rail projects.

The federal government typically pays about half the cost of large transit projects, but before it awards any money, it requires a matching commitment from state and local governments. Southwest supporters will first need to convince Minnesota planners that it should be the next project funded.

&#8220We are very clear we are behind Central in the queue, but the question becomes, of those tier two corridors, where is the priority,” Dorfman said. &#8220I think we can make a real strong case that Southwest should be first of those projects.”

While first-tier projects like Central will probably tie up revenue from the transportation amendment for several years, Dorfman said progress on those projects, and the success of Hiawatha, is greasing the tracks for Southwest.

&#8220There's been a sea of change of opinion in Southwest,” she said. &#8220If you combine the support of the business community and the growing support in the public, I think it's pretty hard, if you're an elected official, to ignore that.”

The toughest competition will likely come at the federal level, said Jim Erkel, transportation director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Cities with transportation sales taxes have already submitted billions of dollars worth of transit plans to Washington, D.C.

&#8220That will create some pretty intense competition,” Erkel said. &#8220It's entirely possible that the Twin Cities could get squeezed out of all new-starts funding through the end of the existing transportation funding bill.”

The motor vehicle sales tax amendment wasn't the only good election news for transportation advocates, though. Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar is now in line to be chairman of the House transportation committee, Erkel said.

&#8220He may have some say whether we can move up in the queue,” Erkel said.

Van Hattum said Oberstar's position is one that can influence how the federal government reviews projects and can't hurt Southwest's chances.

A Southwest light-rail line was initially proposed in a 1988 report by the Hennepin County Rail Authority. Separate studies by Metro Transit and the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 1999 and 2000 determined a bus rapid-transit would be feasible between Hopkins and Downtown Minneapolis. The current effort is part of the Metropolitan Council's 2030 transportation plan.

The consensus among transit experts seems to be that a Southwest light rail is now a question of when, not if.

&#8220The bottom line is we're on track,” Dorfman said.

Dan Haugen can be reached at [email protected] or 436-5088.