With Boost from Advocates, Southwest Light Rail Gets a Lifeline

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By Andrea Kiepe, Organizer

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Heartened by our successful efforts to rescue the Orange Line in early August, TLC members, allies, and other local advocates made a successful push for another imperiled transit project as summer came to a close. This time, Southwest light rail needed our help.

Southwest did not receive the $135 million it needed from the state legislature this year. Without another solution, this major transit project was running out of cash and likely to miss out on more than $900 million in essential federal funds. A shutdown was looming.

With the clock ticking, TLC urged Governor Dayton to pursue local funding needed to keep Southwest light rail on track. Hundreds of our members also reached out to Dayton, asking him to do all he could to keep Southwest moving forward. Days later, the governor held an intense public forum on the project. Afterward, he endorsed the use of local funding to save the line and ensure it could compete for federal dollars. Hennepin County, the Counties Transit Improvement Board, and the Metropolitan Council stepped up to commit resources for the funding patch-job.

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Governor Dayton’s August 25 forum on the issue set the stage for these last-minute decisions and really crystallized the debate over this project. With short notice and a great deal at stake, TLC staff encouraged community leaders and our own individual supporters to attend and speak up for the line. Our staff also spoke and provided ongoing summaries of public testimony as it happened via Twitter, using the #SWLRT hashtag.

More than 100 people attended. The meeting went hours over schedule and the packed room heated up—literally and figuratively—with standing room only and passionate debate. Most people offering testimony supported the project and presumably were relieved when the Governor announced his determination to pursue a local funding option. The move not only propels Southwest forward, it also keeps Minnesota’s other future transitways well positioned to earn the federal funding they inevitably will need one day.

TLC staff, members, and allies, including the Sierra Club, Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, AFSCME, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and ATU Local 1005, participated alongside dozens of other businesses, unions, local elected officials, and community groups. Many remarks touched on several key issues again and again: the need for economic investments—especially ones that address racial inequity in the metro—and the various community-wide benefits of a strong regional transit system for improving air quality, calming traffic, curbing global warming, and promoting public health.

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“I can’t hop five buses to get to medical care!” said one resident of North Minneapolis, who uses a walker and detailed how important transit is for people with disabilities. She was there with several other people from the Harrison neighborhood who reiterated the need for people to access jobs along the line.

Alexis Pennie, another resident of North Minneapolis and member of the Transportation Forward Equity Table made the racial justice message explicit, saying, “Make no mistake: Southwest LRT will benefit communities of color and help address racial disparities.”

TLC member Richard Adair mentioned his grandchildren when speaking in support of Southwest. He emphasized that expanding transit is key to protecting future generations from the most harmful effects of climate change.

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Opponents, though in the clear minority of the speakers present, raised concerns about the route’s effect on the Kenilworth trail and nearby neighborhoods. Several legislators argued that the substantial initial cost of construction made it a bad investment and suggested buses alone would be a better choice. Representatives of individual businesses, local elected officials, and both the state and regional Chambers of commerce all vehemently rebutted this claim.

A member of the Twin West Chamber assured the crowd that only after extensive cost/benefit analysis of all the different transportation options for the southwest metro did they endorse the project. They concluded that light rail was the clear choice. The spokesperson for the Minnesota Chamber was absolutely firm that it was a sound investment, saying, “It is crystal clear that transit is important to our members statewide.”

The mayor of Saint Louis Park emphasized the need for affordable housing near transit while the mayor of Minnetonka argued that his community is car dependent now, and that local residents need other options, concluding, “The cost is worth it.” City council representatives from Hopkins said that the cities on the line were united in support and emphasized the benefits for the whole region.

Asad Aliweyd, director of the New American Academy, spoke about the East African immigrant communities in the southwest suburbs who need the line for critical connections to work, school, family, and other opportunities. His organization’s community workshops have explored the potential for a more transit-oriented and walkable area when the rail line is built.

Big thanks to all who joined us in speaking up for transit at, and in the lead-up to, this pivotal meeting. With your help, and with the commitment of our state and metro leaders, Southwest light rail is officially moving forward!