I have been serving on the Corridor Management Committee since the Southwest light rail project (SWLRT) began to be discussed during the Pawlenty administration, when Peter Bell was chair of the Metropolitan Council.
The decision to build what is now called the Green Line, a 14.5-mile-long light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie serving St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka in between, will give our region a national-class if not world-class transit system serving thousands of riders daily.
There are important reasons why this transit line is being built. First, it will drive billions in economic development, some of which is already underway in the five cities along the line. Second, it creates a path to a more inclusive and equitable economy with broader access to both jobs and housing for all metro families. This will be the first line in our system where ridership is expected to be significant in both directions, allowing people in Minneapolis to easily reach the job-rich environment of the southwest suburbs. And third, SWLRT will provide a much-needed tool to address the urgent issue of climate change by reducing the number of vehicles on our region's roads.
Both the Green Line (University Avenue) and the Blue Line (Hiawatha) have proved to be wise decisions for the region and pre-pandemic were handling, between them, over 78,000 passengers per day. Both projects came in on time and on budget.
The Green Line extension, when fully operational in a post-COVID environment, is expected to provide rides for more than 29,000 people per day by the year 2035. Tens of thousands of people, every day, out of single-occupant vehicles, using a viable light-rail transit system, is a blessing for congestion relief on roads and for the reduction of greenhouse gases affecting our environment.
So here we are, three years into construction of the line, with more than $1.6 billion expended to date on the project, which is over 60% complete, and the naysayers and financial critics have resurfaced due to a projected delay and cost overrun on the largest public works project in Minnesota history.
The challenge with tunneling in the Kenilworth corridor is only the most recent — albeit most significant — challenge. It is a challenge recognized from the beginning of the construction process. There have been all kinds of other challenges solved along the way on this massive project including, for example, whether to co-locate freight in the Kenilworth corridor with the light rail or relocate freight to St. Louis Park, dealing with the demands of the Burlington Northern freight railroad for a questionably required crash wall, and a prior governor who delayed the project for at least two years by requiring rebidding of an engineering contract and additional public outreach.
These are the types of problems, both anticipated and unanticipated, that are often faced and dealt with in large public works projects (think the Big Dig in Boston or the current $9 billion highway expansion project proposed in Houston).
It's important to recall that these decisions, big or small — beginning with route, mode-type and station locations — were not made in a vacuum. They were spearheaded by Hennepin County dating back to the 1980s, in partnership with the cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, and with significant public input.
Since the project's inception there have been instances of the best of local and regional partnerships. Whether gathering public comment at key decision points, accepting the decisions controlled by partners relative to change orders, or myriad other milestones requiring compromise, progress has continued to be made through the intergovernmental level of cooperation that has existed.
The plain fact is, there is no going back and unwinding what has been done. The Green Line extension needs to be completed. Closing down the project would mean a billion-dollar payment obligation to the federal government plus hundreds of millions expended in restorative efforts all along the line.
So, let's forget the finger-pointing and scapegoating of the Met Council, which has the responsibility to make the project happen, and get the key problem solved — dealing with a half-mile stretch of a 14.5-mile line that is fraught with all kinds of challenges (and costs).
And when we are finished, our system will be world-class and will serve us all well for decades to come.
Jim Hovland is mayor of Edina and chair of the Transportation Advisory board to the Metropolitan Council.