Southwest LRT Planning Moves Forward, But Not Without Challenges

By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

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The highly anticipated Southwest light rail transit (LRT) line, from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, could open for passengers by 2018—if the project stays on track.

Like all major transportation projects, however, Southwest LRT must overcome financial and engineering hurdles en route to operation.

The stakes for the region are high: The Southwest LRT line is a key component of a Twin Cities metro system of transitways (i.e. light rail, highway bus rapid transit, and possibly additional commuter rail), expanded regular route transit, and improved bicycle and pedestrian connections. Expected to be the region’s third LRT line, after Hiawatha (Blue Line) and Central (Green Line) Corridors, the 15.8-mile Southwest line will seamlessly connect with Central Corridor LRT, effectively extending the Green Line. The Southwest line will improve affordable access to 210,000 existing jobs and another 60,000 jobs projected by 2030. It will connect the southwestern suburbs (especially Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie directly along the line) to downtown worksites. Large suburban employers, such as Cargill, Comcast, SuperValu and United Health, and their employees will greatly benefit from LRT connections to the southwestern suburbs and from the two downtowns, University Avenue, and North Minneapolis.  

Funding

While planning and community engagement around the line rolls on and excitement among residents continues to build, the Southwest light rail line is not yet a fully funded project.

Luckily, Southwest LRT remains well positioned to secure federal New Starts funding for one-half of the $1.25 billion capital cost. And with projected daily ridership of nearly 30,000; substantial new commercial and residential development anticipated at the 17 stations; and light rail clearly identified as the best transportation solution for this busy corridor, Southwest LRT is a smart investment for our metro region. The local share of the capital costs will come from a combination of regional sales tax revenue (1/4-cent sales tax administered by CTIB), county property taxes, and a state share. With $37 million from the state General Fund directed to the project this past legislative session, project planners hope to secure the remaining $81-million state share during the 2014 legislative session—either through G.O. bonding and/or an increase in the  regional sales tax.

Largely due to the potential for direct economic benefits (primarily from reduced traffic delays and reduced car costs) and improved livability, a recent poll from the Minneapolis Regional Chamber showed that 75 percent of voters in the Twin Cities metro area support state spending on Southwest LRT. Let’s hope Minnesota’s legislators are listening: without additional state funding in 2014, a federal matching grant and project timeline both will be at risk.

Engineering

Engineering hurdles still facing Southwest LRT include designing numerous bridges and tunnels, and planning for access by cars, buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the stations. Planning for parking also is a pending issue.

Most urgent, however, is the need to determine how to handle freight rail traffic and LRT vehicles in the St. Louis Park/South Minneapolis section of the line. The Metropolitan Council hopes to have a solution to this heavily debated issue by late summer 2013.

Two options for freight and light rail service are being carefully studied: freight rail relocation in St. Louis Park, and freight/LRT co-location in South Minneapolis. (PDF, see page 2)

Swlrt-relocation-colocation-creditmetcouncil-WEBCredit: Metropolitan Council

This summer, new freight rail relocation possibilities under consideration include gentler curves and a flatter alignment than proposed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), and two options at the St. Louis Park High School: moving the football field and running freight tracks over the field’s current footprint, or skirting the freight tracks to the east side of the football field.

Minneapolis co-location options currently being studied include:

  • Tunnels for the LRT track
  • Elevating the LRT track
  • Relocating the bike/ped trail to create room for LRT and freight traffic
  • Or co-locating, the bike/ped trail, LRT, and freight tracks all at ground level.

Project engineers presented their revised freight relocation and freight/LRT co-location options in St. Louis Park on June 13 and received feedback from community members.  As was expressed at the June meeting, there is substantial concern by some St. Louis Park residents about safety risks for people who live near the proposed freight train reroute. At the same time, space constraints leading to substantial engineering costs and property acquisitions via eminent domain make the co-location options challenging as well.

For more maps and information on revised freight relocation and freight/LRT co-location options see this recent PowerPoint (PDF), or watch the presentation given to the St. Louis Park City Council in late May.

Development

Concurrent with engineering the Southwest LRT line, planning is underway for future development near the 17 LRT stations.

Planning for new residential development is critical given the substantial demand for housing near light rail, and the desire of Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council to “provide a full range of housing near new transitways.” Hennepin County recently hired Maxwell Research to conduct a Southwest LRT Housing Inventory which includes an analysis of demographic and economic data within ½ to 2 miles of each station.

The Housing Inventory will provide important data for the Transitional Station Area Action Plans (TSAAP), and is the starting point for crafting a corridor-wide housing strategy. Still ahead are a housing market analysis, gap analysis, and setting goals and strategies for development.

Some highlights from the Housing Inventory (from within a half mile of  all stations along the line):

  • 50 percent of current residents are 35 and under
  • Majority of residents are renters
  • Median annual household income is $50,580
  • 31 percent of residents work in Minneapolis
  • Study area includes four public schools, seven charter schools, and ten private schools
  • Policies and land use plans by cities along the line are incorporating new language that supports high-density, mixed-use development, multi-family housing, and increased opportunities for affordable housing.

Get Involved

Bob Aderhold, TLC Board Member and Edina resident, was recently selected to serve on the Southwest LRT Community Advisory Committee (CAC). Bob will provide a strong local voice on Southwest LRT issues, and will provide future summaries of action items before the committee.

We encourage you to get involved in the ongoing planning process as well, and to show your continued support for Southwest LRT!

Be sure to check out www.swbeyondtherails.com, a new, interactive website where you can share ideas about Southwest LRT station area plans, and comment on others’ ideas too.

If you live in Minneapolis or Eden Prairie, attend an upcoming open house on Southwest LRT station areas in your city:

 

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