It’s time for Southwest Light Rail to move forward

After years of debate and many lessons learned, it appears the path of the proposed 16-mile long Southwest Light Rail Transit has finally been decided. By a 14-2 vote, the Metro Council has approved the final route and the shallow tunnel option in Minneapolis. It is an option that this editorial board strongly supports.

It has been no small feat, if you consider rail line discussions date back to 1988 when the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority identified the southwest transitway from Hopkins to Minneapolis as a future light rail route.

Later this month, the five cities along the line will take a municipal consent vote — we hope Minneapolis joins the suburbs and votes yes to move the project forward.

For 25 years, there has been much debate over the best route for light rail. In fact, 12 options were originally considered. Those 12 were eventually narrowed to four by 2002-03 and yet harmony could still not be achieved, largely because the proposed routes were either going to cause disruption to business in the Uptown area or send more trains through the prestigious Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was a virtual guarantee that routing any line through the unique amenities and characteristics between downtown Minneapolis and St. Louis Park would pose challenges and friction.

The greatest attention centered on the Kenilworth area, because of the number of single-family homes and the proximity to Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. There are unquestionably points along the route in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie that will cause discomfort. That is part of the shared pain, but also the tremendous gain that comes with a transit project of this magnitude and significance.

The opportunity this presents for the mobility of thousands of Twin Citians is quite simply remarkable. It is a hallmark victory for the families and workers who do not have the luxury of being able to jump in a car and get from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie to experience all the region has to offer between those two points. And with 16 stops at strategic locations along the way, much opportunity will be available in the years ahead. This region of the Twin Cities is expected to add 30,000 households and 60,000 jobs in the next 16 years.

The Southwest Line will allow anyone to gain access to other valuable transit connections, including light rail that extends between Minneapolis and the Mall of America and soon the METRO Green Line from Minneapolis to St. Paul. These are epic connections that will not only help ease congestion and pollution on already over-crowded highways, but will create real opportunity for thousands of metro residents to secure jobs in suburban locations.

Although Gov. Dayton’s delay of this project last October to gain more feedback and seek more study has added roughly $50 million to the cost, that decision has ensured this route is the best option and the time to move forward is now. We urge Minneapolis to add its support when the municipal consent vote is taken.

There will continue to be debate about the Southwest Line, some of it focused on the cost, now tipping the scales at $1.7 billion. And continued opposition from Minneapolis officials certainly does little to help many of the residents of that city gain access to one of the most job-rich areas of the metro. Ultimately this is about creating a better transit system throughout the Twin Cities and this is a key component that must occur for that to happen. City leaders in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie face their own challenges in the months ahead as the exact path of the line takes shape and causes the usual disruptions. But when the line finally opens in 2019, it will all have been worth it.

There are lessons to be learned from this process, for sure. The greatest beneficiary of those lessons could be the proposed Bottineau Transitway, which will extend from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, passing through Golden Valley, Robbinsdale and Crystal. It will further extend the reach of light rail and already the cities affected have approved resolutions in support of a preferred route. Gaining approval for that preferred route today is a major step that could save millions of dollars in delays later.

It is absolutely essential that all major stakeholders become involved from day one. Mark Wegner, president of Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company, told this editorial board his company was not consulted in the early planning. Proposals to reroute freight in St. Louis Park were not feasible, he said. Freight trains just cannot make sharp turns or ascend steep grades. Let’s be sure the railroads are at the table as the Bottineau route is finalized.

The greatest lesson is that transit is a metro-wide issue that needs consensus from the entire region. The workers who fill downtown office buildings are not all from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The shoppers who help support downtown restaurants and bars, hotels, fill Target Center, Target Field and soon a new Vikings stadium come from all areas of the state, but many call a suburban community home. Likewise, jobs, shopping and entertainment are available in the suburban areas that soon will be available to a wider audience because of light rail.

It has been a long and painful process at many junctures. But five years from now when a critical new thread in the metro’s transit tapestry is finally unveiled, all that emotion and hard work will not have gone to waste.

– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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