Southwest Light Rail project on hold; officials expect rail line to go forward

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s sidelining of the Southwest Light Rail transit project drew different levels of concern from transportation officials and insiders.

“There’s going to be hiccups along the way,” Minnesota Public Transit Association President Tony Kellen said of transit projects.

The general feeling among transportation officials and insiders is the current impasse gripping the Southwest Light Rail Line will be worked out. The Central Corridor Light Rail Line, pictured, is expected to begin service in 2014. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

The general feeling among transportation officials and insiders is the current impasse gripping the Southwest Light Rail Line will be worked out. The Central Corridor Light Rail Line, pictured, is expected to begin service in 2014. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Former Ventura Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg views the delay as troubling.

“I think this will set it (Southwest) back significantly,” he said.

Dayton recently called for a timeout on the $1.56 billion Southwest project after Minneapolis city officials expressed worry over potential environmental damage from proposed light rail tunnels, according to media reports.

“I deeply regret the process has come to this point,” Dayton said on Oct. 22, shortly after meeting with suburban city officials and key legislators at the state Capitol about Southwest.

The city of St. Louis Park had already expressed displeasure with the delay. Mayor Jeffrey Jacobs, in a letter to Dayton, said re-evaluating the light rail project, with the potential of rerouting freight rail traffic to St. Louis Park, “appears misguided.”

Jacobs questioned whether St. Louis Park could give municipal consent — a desirable, but not required go-ahead, Dayton said — to the project should freight traffic be rerouted to his city.

Dayton’s call for a breather may have been a good idea, Tinklenberg said, but he wondered what would change.

“I don’t see a solution to it,” Tinklenberg said.

And delay could bring bad news.

The Federal Transit Administration, if it deems Southwest as unsettled, will not hold its funding for the project, Tinklenberg said. It’s not unusual at all, he said, for the FTA to redirect transit dollars.

“It’s not that hard and fast,” Tinklenberg said of Southwest losing funding for failing to meet a certain deadline.

But the $625 million in FTA funding is jeopardized, he argued.

House Transportation Policy Committee Chairman Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, said he views the current impasse as temporary.

He hasn’t seen much compromise, he said.

“(But) this is too valuable to the region and the state to allow it to flounder,” Erhardt said of Southwest.

Kellen – who heads a coalition of transit systems, transit advocates, and vendors and suppliers – is philosophical. Hiawatha and Central Corridor light rail projects, the latter expected to begin service in 2014, both experienced setbacks and frictions, he said.

One issue Central Corridor faced was the worry that the trains, with fluctuating electromagnetic levels, would disturb delicate scientific experiments at the University of Minnesota. The line runs through the campus. Millions of dollars were spent addressing this issue, according to a media report.

There were worries that track vibrations would threaten the century-old Capitol and interfere with Minnesota Public Radio radio broadcasts in downtown St. Paul.

But things went ahead.

“I think Southwest is eventually going to be built,” Kellen said.

Former Anoka County Board Commissioner Dan Erhardt, a key player in the Northstar Commuter Rail drama, advised Southwest Light Rail supporters not to panic.

“I think it will work out,” Erhardt said of Southwest. “Look how many times we got stopped (on Northstar) because of the political winds.”

To find a solution for Southwest, officials need to keep talking, he said.

Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee Chairman Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he expects Southwest issues to be worked through.

In terms of severity, he jokingly gauged the current impasse as “somewhere between a hiccup and a burp.”

Still, Dibble described a sticky situation: The trust level is low, he said, and communities are divided.

“Everybody is mad at the Met Council,” Dibble added.

Although describing some of the proposals for shifting freight rail traffic to St. Louis Park as laughable, Minneapolis officials have assumed for years traffic would be redirected to St. Louis Park, he explained.

Additionally, Dibble, who spoke of pulling together the facts, said the tunnel proposal needs more scrutiny.

As for the FTA, the agency is more concerned about the local funding package for Southwest Light Rail coming together than a debate breaking out, Dibble said. He is not worried about losing federal dollars, he added.

Construction on the 15.8-mile Southwest Light Rail line, which would serve the suburban cities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, is scheduled to begin in 2015.

The Met Council will seek $81 million in bonding during the next legislative session for the project. Rep. Erhardt, who serves on the House Capital Investment Committee, said changes to the project could push that figure higher.

 

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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