By Barb Thoman, Executive Director
We were glad to see the vote yesterday to move forward with Southwest LRT. The Southwest Corridor Management Committee includes representatives from the communities along the line. The sole “no” vote, from Minneapolis, emphasized concerns about preserving the water quality of the City of Lakes and about whether the freight re-route options have been explored fully. Even with these concerns, it’s clear that the region’s leaders, including those in Minneapolis, support advancing transit and preserving bicycle and pedestrian access in the corridor.
TLC’s priority is building out regional systems of transit, bicycling, and walking. These networks greatly increase access to jobs and quality of life for the region’s growing population. They create connected communities less burdened by air pollution and more likely to be healthy. As we look at projects and progress, therefore, we are focusing attention on the effect on the whole system, multimodal access, and impacts on disadvantaged populations and our environment.
The system: As TLC made clear last summer, our region needs to keep Southwest LRT (SWLRT) project costs at a level that preserves our chances for federal funding and that does not adversely affect the build out of the rest of the regional transit system. We are pleased that the SWLRT project office’s proposed project budget of $1.55 billion still is competitive with other LRT projects around the US with which our region will complete for federal funding. This budget includes ending the LRT line at the Southwest Station (as TLC recommended in the DEIS process years ago), while ensuring important bus connections and express bus service from Eden Prairie and adjoining counties. A full funding grant agreement application to FTA is planned for spring 2014. We can’t afford additional delay in finalizing the alignment, stations, and other details, and also securing municipal consent from all five cities along the line. This project is competing directly for federal funds with two projects in Maryland and one in San Diego.
The SWLRT project still needs a state commitment of 10 percent of the project cost and CTIB must also approve 30 percent of the project cost. The decision yesterday avoids taking property in St. Louis Park or in Minneapolis and is cheaper than the current estimates for freight re-route. Looking to the build-out of the full system, however, the issue bigger than the SWLRT project cost is that our region still lags in overall funding for transit, bicycling, and walking. To fully build out the regional plan (for LRT, BRT, bus, bicycling, walking, and streetcars) in fifteen years requires an increase of 3/4-cent in the regional sales tax for transit. Securing this funding will require support from across the region and likely will come only when the legislature approves new funding for transportation statewide.
Multimodal access: There must be commitment to maintaining bike/ped access in the corridor as well as improving bike/ped access to stations. Shallow tunnels for LRT in the Kenilworth Corridor allow for retention of bike/ped trails at grade from just north of the West Lake Street Station to Cedar Lake Parkway. Additionally, yesterday’s decision included the approval of an amendment to maintain the "character and alignment" of the existing Kenilworth trails. The northern tunnel eliminates the 21st Street Station, which was projected to have very low ridership and minimal bus service.
Shallow tunnels for LRT in the Kenilworth Corridor allow for retention of bike/ped trails at grade from just north of the West Lake Street Station to Cedar Lake Parkway.
TLC has long pushed for charging a low daily fee for parking at transit stations along this line and at other LRT stations in the system. The region continues to spend a lot of money on parking at transit stations, including 3400 spaces for this project at a cost of more than $25,000 per space. Parking fees would more fully capture the costs of driving, encourage access to stations by transit, bicycling, and walking, and provide funding for bicycle and pedestrian access and costs related to transit-oriented-development. Parking fees would also better balance supply and demand as transit ridership increases. We believe the premium service provided by LRT justifies charging for parking, and that it may make sense to expand parking charges to park-and-rides regionwide sometime in the future. Transit agencies in other regions do charge for parking including RTA in Denver, SEPTA in Philadelphia, and BART in San Francisco, among others.
Disadvantaged populations: As with Central Corridor LRT, it is imperative to ensure that affordable housing in proximity to the line is a priority as part of future transit-oriented development. We support the plan to shift Canadian Pacific-owned freight tracks to the north side of the LRT tracks, as this strengthens transit-oriented development potential in Hopkins and St. Louis Park. As we stated in our comment letter on the SDEIS, we support locating the light rail maintenance base in Hopkins rather than in Eden Prairie. A Hopkins location provides better access from an operations standpoint and provides greater access to jobs at the facility.
Environment & Health: There are concerns that the SWLRT alignment might affect water resources in the Kenilworth Corridor. We are very encouraged by the fact that the watershed district has been participating in the process of evaluating the shallow tunnel option and approves of them. We agree with Minneapolis that all necessary precautions must be taken to ensure no harm to water resources, during construction and operation of the project. We also want to emphasize that the build-out of a regional system of transit, bicycling, and walking contributes to improved air quality, less run off from paved surfaces, retention of open space, and it fosters active transportation. These investments speak directly to our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Metropolitan Council is expected to vote on the recommended plan for SWLRT on October 16 (3:00). We urge the Council to keep Southwest LRT moving forward while also working with residents and leaders from Minneapolis and other cities along the line to address remaining questions and concerns about this vital project. The Council will need to seek municipal consent for the project by the end of the year.
Tonight, a public open house will give community members an opportunity to ask questions and share their input on the recommended plan for SWLRT in Minneapolis. Find more information on our events calendar.