Anyone “following the money” on Southwest LRT quickly arrives at the front door of the CEOs and developers who showed up en masse at Gov. Mark Dayton’s meeting last week.
What’s not for them to like about the project? They’d get a fantastically expensive public utility running up to their front door, and they’d get it free — thanks to Minnesota taxpayers. One wonders if they’d still be on board if they had to pay their fair share, say, a surtax on the increased profits and property values they expect to enjoy if it is built.
Southwest light rail is not your garden-variety government project. At $1.9 billion, it’s the most expensive public works project in Minnesota history. Its 14.5-mile route would cost twice as much as the Vikings stadium and two and a half times as much as the $720 million New Horizons space probe to Pluto.
What would taxpayers get for that fantastic sum? Traffic reduction? Per the Metropolitan Council’s own figures, the Southwest line would add only 6,500 new transit users to the system — at a cost of $300,000 each — by 2040.
Environmental benefits? Again per the Met Council, the line would actually add 2,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year to the environment over and above the “No Build” option. It would also destroy 44 acres of urban forest — and the serenity of one of the loveliest parts of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.
Its most immediate and reprehensible effect is that it would serve some of the most affluent riders in the metro area at the cost of neglecting those who need transit the most. You don’t see those people lined up in support. True, the Met Council found some low-income Minneapolis residents to speak for the project at the governor’s meeting, but afterward some of them told members of LRT Done Right, a citizens’ group: “We really didn’t know the facts and were basically told what to say.” Informed of how the route would circumvent their part of town, they ripped off their “Save SWLRT” stickers.
Many people believe a billion dollars would be better invested in education and job development in the inner city than in the importation of poor people to work low-wage jobs in the suburbs.
Everybody agrees: We need better transit. But if we sink $2 billion into a project that doesn’t do the job right, we won’t have solved our transit problems, and will have no money left to do so later.
If the Met Council had identified other options, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the governor would not be in such a pickle. But it didn’t. Its neglect failed him, and is the reason the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis took the council to federal court; if LPA wins the lawsuit (scheduled to go to trial in September 2017), the council will have to “rescope” — start all over.
What should decisionmakers do now? Just what you’d do if you found that some home project wouldn’t meet your goals and its cost had careened out of control — stop, cut your losses and look for alternatives. Other solutions do exist — for example, bus rapid transit, or routes along Olson Highway or through Uptown.
The Met Council claims a delay means forfeiting the 50 percent federal match. But “free money” should not make us lose our heads and make decisions that would harm our community.
The proposed Southwest route is ridiculously expensive and won’t solve our transit problems. Let’s stop it before it’s too late.
Mary Pattock is a board member of the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis.