Is the Future of Twin Cities Light Rail in Jeopardy?

Is the Future of Twin Cities Light Rail in Jeopardy?

Minneapolis Light Rail Extensions Face Logistical Funding ProblemThe Green Line was a huge success story for the Twin Cities. In 2014, when the light rail line connected Minneapolis and St. Paul, there was cause for celebration. And the cities have been enamored by the 11-mile stretch of track—dubbed the Green Line—that brought the two cities together for the first time in more than 60 years. On the first day, more than 45,000 people rode from one downtown to the other, with stops at 23 stations in between.

It was a day to remember, but getting to that point was not without controversy. It took more than eight years of active planning and actual construction, not to mention decades of political maneuvering. St. Paul was hesitant and hard to bring "on board" during the planning, partly because the bulk of the route lay on its side of the city boundaries. And the Green Line was expensive, totaling $957 million dollars and extensive disruption. But the subsequent economic boost for both cities has been ample compensation. Now, with approximately 40,000 passengers riding the Green Line each weekday, this most popular of the two routes has surpassed all expectations. It has also been used repeatedly as a "lesson" for other cities or counties, such as Blue Earth County, contemplating modern rail transportation.

The Future of Light Rail

Now Minneapolis is at a turning point. Planned extensions of both the Blue and Green routes are planned. But will they be equally well received?

Or will they even be built? A major snag was announced just days ago, when Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) announced its withdrawal from the project, saying that there "are too many downsides to continue." The problem is over logistics and scheduling on eight miles of track that would be shared along the planned 13-mile route. That surprise announcement leaves the project known as the Bottineau Blue Line in limbo.

Funding is problematic, even though new development along the proposed routes is already planned. Investment along those routes now stands at $8.4 billion, up approximately $1.6 billion in just the last year. Not only businesses, but almost 600 new housing units have been announced; one of the reasons is the proximity to the rail line, a boon for developers who market lifestyle convenience.

Planners and developers alike insist that light rail has an "undeniable economic impact," notes David Wellington, director of acquisitions and development for Wellington Management, which has planned mixed use projects along both the Green and Blue lines. Connecting residents and jobs is one of the prime reasons developers target residential and commercial projects adjacent to the rail lines.

Boon or Drain on Local Dollars

The dollar value of development is staggering, and it seems to just keep growing:

  • The Metropolitan Council reports $5.8 billion in development along the Green Line, with more than half of that outside of the Minneapolis downtown area. A substantial portion of the total is clustered around stations shared with the Blue Line downtown.
  • The Southwest LRT, scheduled to be underway this year, accounts for more than $1 billion in development already completed, currently underway or planned, with about $60 million planned near Opus Station in Minnetonka and an equal amount to be located near SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie.
  • In South Minneapolis and Bloomington, more than $1 billion in development has been tallied in the past year alone along the Blue Line, but that includes only 24 of the 41 projects currently tracked.
  • Projects already underway or planned along the length of the Blue Line extension that will connect the Northern suburbs with downtown add up to more than half a billion additional dollars.

But all is not rosy for the future of Minneapolis Light Rail, despite the growth in commercial real estate. Building two extensions at the same time is viewed by some as a major hurdle. The price tag for the new routes keeps growing, with many uncertainties surrounding the sources of funding; federal, state and local sources are all likely to be needed, and many questions remain.

A Long Time Coming

The planned Green Line extension is on track to hold the state record for largest (most expensive) infrastructure project in history at a 2017 projected cost of $1.86 billion. The Blue Line extension is no bargain either, with a cost estimate of $1.54 billion.

In addition, the extensions would partially utilize existing commercial track, and alliances with lines like BSNF are not easy. There have been legal battles, endless court transcripts, funding disputes, right-of-way disputes and political strategizing.

Supporters say the extensions are essential, but detractors insist they are too expensive, and that options exist. At the present time, unless new consensus is forged quickly that allows planning to proceed, the hoped for route extensions may be years away from reality. Even if all goes well, the current timeline lists completion of the Southwest LRT, the much-touted Green Line extension, no earlier than 2023. Then, there is still the question of the Orange Line, and an additional light rail line that supporters would like to see built.

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