Southwest LRT takes step forward with Minneapolis, Met Council agreement

A prelimary map of the Southwest LRT line's proposed route.

A prelimary map of the Southwest LRT line's proposed route.

It might not seem like much to those who haven't followed the project closely, but the proposed Southwest LRT line took a significant step forward yesterday with the announcement of an agreement between Minneapolis and the Met Council about how the line will move through Minneapolis.

Minneapolis officials agreed to eliminate an underground tunnel "north of the water channel connecting Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles." That might not be ideal for residents who live in the area, but it saves money and allows a station at 21st Street to be reincorporated as part of the plan. (A tunnel further south remains part of the project.)

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"We had previously designed the shallow north tunnel in response to what we thought we were hearing from the community and city in that area, but it became cost prohibitive," Meredith Vadis, communications director for the Met Council, tells us. "The alignment stays the same -- where the light rail is going to run -- but what changes is north of the channel the light rail will be at grade."

In a statement, Susan Haigh, chair of the Met Council, characterized the agreement as "a path forward to accomplish our mutual goals and to ensure this project gets built as a critical component of our 21st century transit system."

"Not only have we found a means for improving the project for Minneapolis' residents and neighborhoods, but together the city and Met Council will be able to save taxpayers $30 million," she continues. "This is a win-win outcome."

Mayor Betsy Hodges expressed disappointment with the fact the latest plan has both freight rail and LRT moving at grade level through the Kenilworth Corridor, but said things "could have been far worse."

"Governor Dayton is correct: the Kenilworth Corridor will not be the same," Hodges says in the statement. "It could have been far worse, however, if not for the protections secured in this tentative agreement. With freight staying in the corridor, and given the constraints we face, this is the most responsible way to get the project built."

"I expect that and understand why residents along the Kenilworth corridor will be disappointed, but the greater good demands that we seek a path for Southwest LRT to move forward," the mayor continues.

There are still a number of hurdles that have to be surmounted before shovels hit the ground. For one, final approval of the route design is needed from all the involved cities and the Met Council. But yesterday's agreement paves the way for those votes to take place before Labor Day.

There's also the question of how much federal funding will be available.

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Half of the $1.653 billion project is expected to by funded by the feds, but those dollars haven't yet been secured.

"The challenge is there's not one federal deadline -- we don't have to have [the project] in by October 1," Vadis says. "We compete with other projects in the federal queue and federal funding continues to decrease year after year. It's a competition with other projects around the country."

But while much work remains to be done, Vadis says the agreement "is certainly a positive step in the right direction."

"It absolutely gives us a path forward," she adds.

Send your story tips to the author, Aaron Rupar. Follow him on Twitter @atrupar.