Proposed state help gives push to $1.25B Southwest light rail

Gov. Mark Dayton included $25 million for the project in his proposed bonding bill.

by Nick Sudheimer


Plans to build the Southwest Corridor light-rail transit line, which would connect Minneapolis with Eden Prairie, are gaining momentum.

Gov. Mark Dayton recently recommended $25 million of his $775 million proposed bonding bill for construction of the 15-mile line. The line would connect with the Hiawatha and Central Corridor lines, as well as the Northstar commuter rail line by Target Field. The Metropolitan Council estimates it will attract 30,000 riders per weekday by 2030.

The $25 million is only a fraction of the projectâÄôs estimated total cost of $1.25 billion but Gail Dorfman, a Hennepin County commissioner, said the contribution is important because it shows the state is committed to the project, which is crucial for receiving federal funding. The federal government is expected to pay for 50 percent of the project.

Before the Met Council, which is spearheading the project, can apply for the federal funds, it must have half of the project funds in hand.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board will cover 30 percent of the cost and Hennepin County will pay another 10 percent.

The state is expected to provide 10 percent, or $125 million of the projectâÄôs total estimated cost. It has already provided $5 million for the project, but another $95 million will still be needed.

âÄúThe federal government needs to know the state is going to be on board and [Hennepin County] needs to know that,âÄù Dorfman said. âÄúWe need the political support of the governor and the Legislature if weâÄôre going to make this happen.âÄù

Despite DaytonâÄôs recommendation, state support for the project is not guaranteed due to a Republican-controlled Legislature.

State Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said he would be strongly opposed to the state providing any additional funding for the project.

âÄúI would rather use those dollars for improving the highway system we already have in place,âÄù Beard said.

Still, Beard said he was âÄúwilling to be convincedâÄù that the line could become a tool for economic development by attracting businesses and raising real estate value along the line.

âÄúIf thatâÄôs the case, IâÄôm willing to talk about how then we capture back some of that value to help pay for it,âÄù Beard said.

Hennepin County has been working closely with cities along the proposed line to help encourage business development, Dorfman said.

The Southwest line will promote economic development, but it will take a while before the âÄúfull benefitsâÄù are realized, said Lance Neckar, a University of Minnesota professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture

 âÄúItâÄôs a long arc of development for these kinds of projects, 20 years in many cases,âÄù said Neckar, who has conducted planning studies on light rail transit.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the project, the federal government gave permission to begin preliminary engineering in the fall, which signaled its interest in the project.

The Met Council is set to begin that work this spring, Met Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen said. During this phase, project planners will outline specific details of the plan, from curb placement to station placement.

The Met Council plans to begin construction by 2015 and expects the line to be completed by 2018.