Met Council chair reports on light rail transit plans

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

Transit corridors in the Twin Cities metropolitan area will make the region attractive, says Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh.

The Southwest LRT (light rail transit) extension of the METRO Green Line is another example of moving the regional transit system closer to being a modern, intermodal system residents desire, Haigh said.

Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, was appointed to her current position in January 2011 by Gov. Mark Dayton. She is the 13th chair of the council since its creation by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, was appointed to her current position in January 2011 by Gov. Mark Dayton. She is the 13th chair of the council since its creation by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Haigh sat down Friday, Sept. 13, with members of the ECM Editorial Board to discuss the Southwest LRT and other transit issues.

Haigh said the Metropolitan Council is committed to building a light rail system that stands the test of time.

The Southwest line will be constructed between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis, spanning 15.8 miles and featuring 17 new stations. Total project cost is estimated at $1.25 billion and would be funded through a mix of federal, state and local sources. This is the largest infrastructure project in state history.

Some say costs will approach $1.6 billion to settle a dispute over freight trains in the path of the future LRT. County officials are hoping that cost figure can be kept below $1.5 billion. Eight options addressing freight traffic have been examined by a coalition of six metro cities. All but two of the options have been eliminated, Haigh said.

“This is a problem that can be solved,” Haigh said, but she added that not everyone will be happy. A goal will be to reduce mobility concerns, she said.

Southwest LRT is forecast for 30,000 daily riders, Haigh said. The Northstar commuter line currently has 14,000 daily riders.

Daily riders on Southwest will be connected with 210,000 jobs along the route and an anticipated additional 60,000 jobs. When finished in 2018, Southwest will connect major activity centers in the region including downtown Minneapolis, the Opus/Golden Triangle employment area in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Eden Prairie Center Mall and the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

Ridership in 2030 is projected at 29,600 weekday passengers. The project interlines with the Central Corridor LRT (Green Line). The Green Line will provide a one-seat ride to destinations such as the University of Minnesota, State Capitol and downtown St. Paul.

The Green Line opens next June, Haigh said. She pointed out that future development looks promising for locales on the Green Line. She said $1.7 billion in building permits have been requested along the Green Line.

Consumer behavior and choice will move people to transit, Haigh predicted.

“Transit has really changed behaviors and is changing how the region is getting built out,” she continued.

Haigh said metro planners see seniors wanting to be closer to services and more and more are going to choose transit for future transportation, she predicted.

Each one of the communities on the Southwest line has “great plans for development around the stations,” Haigh said.

Controversy still looms because of the concern for moving freight traffic, Haig said, and when democracy is at work, it can often be a messy proposition. If one of the cities were not to approve a plan for routing of freight traffic, the project could still go forward, Haigh said. She added that her desire is to have full approval.

A recommendation from rail experts is expected soon and will be given to a corridor management committee, which is an advisory arm to the Metropolitan Council. Four levels of citizen input have been obtained. Haigh said she is hoping to receive municipal consent prior to the 2014 Minnesota Legislature session, which begins on Feb. 25.

Funding partners for the project include the federal government, Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Counties Transit Improvement Board and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority.

Haigh said the Southwest project has been selected by the White House as a fast-track project. Federal funding will reportedly amount to 50 percent, or $750 million to $800 million. A full funding agreement is needed by 2015, Haigh said.

State and local funding amounts to 50 percent, 30 percent coming from the counties transit board. State funding was passed by the Senate during the 2013 session but not moved on by the House.

Haigh said the Southwest line will be a key connector and will be an effective way to relieve congestion in the west corridor.

Haigh, a transit fan, has been chair of the Metropolitan Council since January 2011, appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton. She previously served as a Ramsey County commissioner, was an assistant Dakota County Attorney and was a staff lawyer for the Metropolitan Council.

Haigh continues to serve as president and CEO of the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which has built more than 820 homes in 50 cities with the help of partner families, volunteers and donors.

 

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com.

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