Set aside, at least for a moment, measurements on ridership, revenue and costs. Instead, substitute the passion generated by the route-selection process for the planned Southwest Light Rail Line from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis, and one gets the sense of how much the transit debate has shifted from "if" to "where."
Much of the public policy passion is coming from those who continue to advocate for the so-called 3C route, which would go along the Midtown Greenway, through Uptown and then head north, most likely via Nicollet Avenue.
Instead, based on a unanimous vote by the planners and engineers of the Southwest Technical Advisory Committee, it's highly likely that the line eventually chosen will wisely be the less costly so-called 3A route, which would run alongside the existing Kenilworth Trail on the east side of Cedar Lake and connect to the planned intermodal transit facility at the new Twins baseball stadium.
After a period of public comment, the Southwest Policy Advisory Committee will vote on the recommendation on Oct. 14, with the Hennepin County Board weighing in next. The ultimate arbiter will be the Metropolitan Council, which will choose the route that will be included in the next stages of planning, as well as in the application for federal funding. Those funds are expected to make up half the cost of the estimated $1.1 billion-to-$1.25 billion project.
It's critical that the Southwest line receive the backing of the feds and the County Transit Improvement Board, which would pay 30 percent, as well as the Hennepin County Rail Authority and the state, which would each pay 10 percent. "You come in with a project that's half a billion more, and it's dead on arrival at every one of those stops," said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who also chairs the Southwest PAC.
All of these entities will base their investment decisions on data that has been called into question by advocates for Uptown's inclusion. But consistency is key, according to Katie Walker, Hennepin County's Transit Project Manager. "It's a mathematical model used for all transit projects in the region, as well as all road projects. The Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration both review the modeling results because they're financial partners."
Using that same model, the Southwest LRT project will have to compete against projects from around the country for federal funding. And without a federal partnership, there would be no need for a route selection discussion because the project, to borrow Dorfman's label, would be DOA.
It's likely that the Policy Advisory Committee will endorse the conclusions of the Technical Advisory Committee. That'll be a major setback for supporters of the 3C route, but they shouldn't let up the pressure for transit service. With the route selection process coming to a close, they should refocus their efforts and advocate for a trolley or streetcar line along the Greenway that would connect the Southwest and Hiawatha lines.
The Technical Advisory Committee agrees. And although it doesn't specifically combine the two projects in its proposal, the committee has added an amendment to its recommendation to continue to explore adding a transit connection between Southwest and Hiawatha. Current estimates range from $50 million to $100 million.
Dorfman supports that effort. "We purchased the Midtown Greenway for the purpose of transit, and we're not backing down from that commitment,'' she said. "As soon as the alignment decision is made, and assuming it's Kenilworth, then we are going to immediately step up and begin planning for a streetcar on the Greenway."
Advocates for the Uptown route make a strong argument that growing areas in Minneapolis will only have greater transit needs in the future. The best way to address those needs would be to combine the 3A route with a Midtown Greenway connection to the Hiawatha line.