Lori Sturdevant
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Minnesotans who remember the deal that built Target Field a decade ago know why Mike Opat bears heed when he talks about the next big project in his sights — the Bottineau light-rail line, aka the Blue Line extension.

Opat is a Hennepin County Board member with a history of getting big projects done. He engineered a way around State Capitol gridlock in 2006 to make Target Field a reality as a Hennepin County venture. He also knows something about overcoming big obstacles. Remember who ended the political career of a formidable fellow named John Derus? That was Opat, circa 1992.

Opat’s zeal for installing a transit train from Target Field in Minneapolis to the Target Corp. headquarters in Brooklyn Park is palpable, as a journalist discovers within a few seconds of running into him in the Hennepin County Government Center skyway. His enthusiasm is homegrown. The proposed 13-mile Bottineau line would run through the district he has represented for 25 years and serve folks he has lived among for all of his 56 years.

“They all want this — Republicans, too. There are a lot of fair-minded people there,” DFLer Opat assured me, pointing to a map of the proposed Bottineau route, which runs through north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park.

“But they are constantly overshadowed by whatever drama is going on down here,” Opat complained, pointing to the other unbuilt transit line on the Hennepin County map.

That would be the Southwest Corridor, which has come to rank with domed stadiums, two-line fishing and double-bottomed semitrailer trucks as perennially sore subjects in Minnesota. The claim that the proposed $1.9 billion line is a wasteful boondoggle has become a matter of Republican dogma, and may have done more than anything else to harden GOP desire to dismantle Metro Transit’s parent body, the Metropolitan Council.

The drama isn’t over for Southwest. But the GOP threat to deprive the line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie of its requisite 50 percent state-plus-local funding appears to have dissipated earlier this year, when the Legislature tossed the entire hot potato — construction plus operation — to Hennepin County. Southwest planners intend to officially apply for the federal funding share before this year ends. Barring a hitch — which seems forever a possibility where this besieged project is concerned — construction on Southwest will start next year.

The $1.5 billion Bottineau line looks to be about six months behind Southwest in the transit building queue. The official word on its status from the Metropolitan Council: “The Blue Line extension is just over 60 percent design-complete and expects to be 90 percent design-complete in early spring/summer 2018.”

That’s not the timetable that worries Opat. Rather, his fretful eye is on the 2018 Legislature and the 2018 gubernatorial election. Bottineau needs the Legislature’s green light to cap the liability that the railroads that operate nearby would bear in the event of a disaster. That’s a concession that has been made to previous transit lines to facilitate the railroad right-of-way agreements they require. It’s a small thing that could become a big thing in an election year, with some candidates trying to outdo each other’s hostility to light rail.

If one such candidate wins the governor’s office, any transit project not already under construction could be in jeopardy, Opat says.

He’s unhappy that the Bottineau line is still cast as second fiddle to Southwest by both friends and foes of LRT. He’s determined to keep his favorite line on track even — or especially — if Southwest derails.

The people who live near Bottineau need the access to jobs throughout the metro area that light rail would provide, he says, with numbers to help tell the tale: Median incomes near the Bottineau line lagged the metro area as a whole by $15,000 a year as of 2013. One out of five residents near the proposed route lives in poverty, twice the metrowide share. Forty percent of the people in the corridor as of 2013 were nonwhite. In census tracts near proposed stations in north Minneapolis, the share of households that do not own a vehicle ranges between 37 percent and 58 percent.

But the vision that’s propelling Opat doesn’t just involve getting his constituents to jobs somewhere else. He foresees more and better jobs coming into his district. First-tier suburbs like Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center are due for a renaissance as the Twin Cities population grows, he said, and the dependability of a fixed transit service could be a magnet for investment. By 2030 or 2040, he thinks there could be charming commercial nodes near rail stations, new purposes (a drone center?) for the Crystal airport, and thousands of additional employees at the Target HQ at the end of the Blue Line.

Opat is a plain-spoken and often outspoken guy. But he seems to be trying not to denigrate the Southwest project as he touts Bottineau. According to the Met Council, Southwest, too, would serve a population both more diverse and less well-off than the seven-county Twin Cities metro area as a whole. Its official forecast projects that it will be a better magnet for jobs and development than Bottineau stands to be.

Opat is also well aware of political reality: With powerful forces arrayed against any light-rail plan, those who want to build more people-moving trains need to stick together to have any hope of succeeding.

But a reminder that one of the two rail lines on the Hennepin County drawing board is popular, and one isn’t, is evidently hard for him to stifle. “I’m just extolling the virtues — the quiet virtues — of the light-rail project that people don’t hate,” he told me.

Bottineau’s virtues may be quiet, but I got the sense that until his train is running, Opat won’t be.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.