“All Options on the Table” with Southwest Corridor

Lots of news on the Southwest Corridor lately. You may have heard about it:

The question of which route is chosen is important not only for the light-rail system Hennepin County wants to build, but also for the rest of the metropolitan area in terms of rail transit philosophy.

That’s because this southwest route offers county commissioners a clear choice between offering suburban riders high-speed commuting to and from downtown jobs or providing slower service to more people through south Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Just kidding, that article is literally from 1987. Though more recently (yesterday) it was announced that probable costs of the southwesterly Green Line extension from Downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, Minnesota have continued to balloon, this time to $1.99 billion dollars, or $2 billion dollars if you want to save money on ink.

Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck “did not rule out the possibility that the project could be scuttled” and qualified that statement by saying he “really means it.” Governor Mark Dayton expressed that he was “shocked and appalled” and that the recent cost escalation “raise[s] serious questions about [the Southwest Corridor’s] affordability and viability.”

Appalled, maybe, shocked–probably not! The StarTribune article includes this helpful chart of past cost projections:

  • 2003: $430 million dollars to $925 million dollars ($534 million dollars to $1.179 billion dollars)
  • 2006-2009: $1.2 billion dollars ($1.312 billion dollars)
  • 2013: $1.55 billion dollars ($1.562 billion dollars)
  • 2014-2015: $1.65 billion dollars to $1.68 billion dollars
  • 2015: $1.99 billion dollars

(2015 dollars in parenthesis)


What are we doing? What is going on? What is happening? Is this normal?

The funny thing is that it is basically normal. Transit projects in the United States cost a godawful and absurd amount of money compared to other countries. We fly consultants from around the country to check our botched work and hire more consultants to hold community meetings for mental health reasons. We study water and study water and count trees and then plan to build a tunnel under a bike trail due to the objections of politically-connected people who bought houses next to a hundred-plus year old rail corridor who then sue us anyway.

We diddle around for three or more decades while the situation changes completely–and hey, no one questioned many billions of dollars of freeway expansion throughout the metro that helped places like Eden Prairie fill in with strip malls and single family houses in looping culs-de-sac. In the 1990s, the Midtown Corridor freight rail route was severed at Hiawatha Avenue forcing the reroute through Kenilworth. We got sort of serious about it and then waited ten years to get a 50% match from the federal government while the cost of the line doubled and we call it a deal: Success.

How Did We Get Here?

Here is a scan from Adam Froehlig’s good and sad website of a 1990 Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority plan:

1990 Southwest Plan

1990 Southwest Plan

This version of the Southwest Corridor would have run in a tunnel under Nicollet Avenue and headed west out of the city on the 29th Street rail corridor towards Eden Prairie, though it did not go as far into Eden Prairie as the current alignment does. Including a tunnel in Downtown Minneapolis that would have connected what are now the at grade-level Green and Blue Lines, this all would have cost $209 million dollars, or $375 million dollars adjusted for inflation.

This is probably, like all projections, a wildly-optimistic one that did not account for the costs of tunneling around the Lost City of Coronado when it is found during excavation around the Uptown McDonald’s. But this would not have cost $2 billion dollars.

But at the very least we would have spent the past twenty years building that part of the metro area around it and its benefits. This is not specifically an argument for the mid-aughts Uptown Minneapolis-serving much-talked about alignment that looked much like the above. Nor is it an argument that ignores that we built two good transit lines in the meantime–we did good and smart things there to the extent we were politically able.

But right now in A.D. 2015 as we consider what this project has become, suburban barbeques and comment sections all across the Internet and also actual committee hearings at the Capitol are full of bizarre non-sequiturs about “choos choos,” and really, the entire premise of mass transit in Minnesota seems to be coming into question. It is easy and fun to dismiss them, but many of these people who are talking about not being able to move a sofa to a new apartment on a Metro Transit bus or expressing their worry about gangbangers taking Northstar to steal their Elk River lawn furniture actually vote in elections–unlike most of the people in my age cohort. They even hold office!

Said bizarre non-sequiturs may be related to the equally bizarre transit schemes (this, Northstar, the Red Line, the Gold Line, probably the Blue Line extension too) that have been cooked up by people working of off assumptions and plans from the 1980s and 1990s and compromised to the point of uselessness. These schemes have been successfully used by politicians and pundits outside of the 494/694 beltway to gin up antipathy towards transit among some suburbanites, and particularly misplaced antipathy towards the entire idea of the metro in outstate Minnesota. This is unfortunate, in our democracy and in our state of Minnesota in which reliably transit-friendly voters are clustered densely into a small number of total legislative districts.

What Will Happen Next?

Who knows–can we beat institutional inertia built up over three decades? We’ve already spent $59 million dollars planning the Southwest Corridor, or the equivalent of two or three arterial bus rapid transit lines. Can we just start over? Let’s actually start the whole thing over, rethinking this entire set up — scrap the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) and five county quarter-cent sales tax and its support of things like the $500 million dollar Gold Line bus rapid transit line to Lake Elmo (that history suggests will not be particularly successful) just so we can give something to Washington County, which contributes less than 10% of what Hennepin County does.

Go back to the legislature and get authority for a half- or whole-cent sales tax in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, and then just build stuff. Plan for the future. Don’t wait a decade for a federal match so you can pretend you’re getting half for free, just do it. Build a light rail connection between Downtown St. Paul and the airport. Build a rail line in the Midtown Greenway. Build something, certainly, out towards Hopkins. Build grade separated rail through South Minneapolis, somewhere.

It doesn’t work this way, unfortunately, but a half-cent sales tax in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties only would almost certainly be approved in a referendum if people thought it was going to be used for things less dubious than building a tunnel under a bike trail.

The issue is not whether or not good people with good intentions fought hard to do anything, the issue is that the current system is producing outcomes that aren’t worth defending. Where is the vision here? The other side has laid out their own regressive vision. What should we be fighting for?

Note: The author pulled out a visible amount of his eyebrows while writing this post.

(Update 4/29/15: Mid-aughts cost projections now include inflation adjusted prices.)


Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

26 thoughts on ““All Options on the Table” with Southwest Corridor

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I hope “end it at Hopkins for now” is an option on the table, since it sounds like much of the added expense is additional engineering concerns in the Mtka section.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Some media outlets reported it as poor soils / pollution in St. Louis Park & Hopkins, though that is suspect since it follows existing rail ROW through those areas…

      It isn’t until the Hopkins/Minnetonka border (Shady Oak Station) that the line begins running on newly created ROW – much of it over swamps and wetlands, etc. The whole Minnetonka alignment is very suspect. I tend to like most of the alignment they’ve come with in Eden Prairie, minus Mitchell Station at the end.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        How crazy complicated is the CEI formula? Could we build a spreadsheet that allows us to estimate the cost of individual stations, links, etc then plug in riders lost by removing sections and spit out an estimate?

        This ignores local politics, of course, but would at least give a good idea to say if the feds would still find the project acceptable if we cut X, Y, and Z to make the line get back to $1.5bn (or something).

        1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

          Such could probably be done to estimate the cost, but it would be a lot more complicated to model potential ridership…you’d basically have to model each dropped station as a separate scenario.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            You could probably make a broad estimation of destinations from each station based on their share of jobs/population within a 1/2 mile relative to the entire line’s, paired with projected boardings at each station, right?

    2. Cameron Slick

      If that was the case, and it’s a good idea, why not just do Diesel-Multiple Unit commuter rail terminating in Hopkins, only with much greater frequency, and end the line at Target Field. It would be exactly what it’s supposed to be, a speedy commuter rail route to the suburbs, and would save us at least four headaches.

  2. helsinki

    Unfortunately, I think much principled opposition to this – essentially commuter – line is misunderstood as ‘anti-transit’. To use a German analogy, SWLRT is basically an S-Bahn line (albeit a fancy and expensive one) that will shuttle suburban dwellers to and from the core. There is nothing wrong with that at all. But I think many transit advocates agree that for all this trouble and money we should be building truly urban transit. Viewed through this lens, SWLRT isn’t worth the cost.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      That’s really the question, and I don’t know how to answer it.

      We can think of it as “X number of BRT” or whatever, but that’s not really how it works. Money that’s there for this isn’t necessarily money that’s there for other things.

      I guess I think the alignment is a bigger issue than the cost. But maybe together they’re reason enough to kill it?

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Nick buried a great proposal for a Hennepin/Ramsey sales tax in this post. To put some numbers to that idea…

    Using sales tax receipts from 2013, a half cent sales tax in those two counties would bring in $135m a year. Assuming no growth in those revenues over the next few decades, you could sell 30 year bonds at 4% for a total capital amount of $2.35 billion. If you assume sales tax receipts grow by 1.5% a year and do a simple average of annual revenue, your bonding capacity in year one goes up to $3bn. Double those numbers for a 1 cent sales tax.

    Puts in perspective what we could build out in the next decade (or less) depending how willing we are to do it. $3bn would be enough to build Riverview, the entire aBRT network, quality shelters for the bus system, and likely Bottineau without any federal or state support. Since sales taxes are regressive, I’d propose charging .6 cents and using the extra dime to alleviate low income property taxes, build affordable housing, etc.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        Very true, they won’t. However, I don’t know that it’s ever even been proposed at the legislature to allow Hennepin or Hennepin+Ramsey go it alone.

        Also, I wonder how the political calculation changes if the legislation included a referendum in those counties… Would exurban and outstate legislators be more willing to entertain a proposal to “let us tax ourselves” if it included a public referendum? I would fully support going that route and would work my ass off trying to get it passed in Hennepin

        1. Steve

          The thing to do is to do what they did in Seattle only statewide, pass sub-area equity. Any transportation taxes raised, either via gas tax or sales tax can only be spent in the area it came from. You make Hennepin and Ramsey one area and divide the rest of the state into a number of other areas. You run an out state campaign along the lines of “Don’t let them spend your transportation taxes on a train in Minneapolis”. That should make sure it passes out state. The money from Hennepin and Ramsey should be more than enough to pay for just about any sort of transit wanted.

      2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        There might be a political value to this delay. Lets say it takes two years; that means that the project could be coming to a legislature that (given that it’s a presidential year) is likely to be much more DFL than this one, who would be more receptive to transit funding schemes.

  4. Mike Hicks

    I’ve hemmed and hawed about the idea of an increased sales tax. For better or worse, that seems like a better option, and focusing on the two core counties is probably best.

    Southwest and Bottineau would probably both work out best as some form of commuter rail rather than light rail. Unlike Northstar, which has to compete with 50-60 freight trains per day, these lines are fairly quiet (1-5 trains per day for the most part) and could handle a lot of passenger trains with relatively little investment. The main downside is that it wouldn’t get you all the way into downtown.

    In both corridors, we’re currently planning to have two LRT tracks plus a freight track for most of the distance. Why not just upgrade the existing freight track and add another? The line could be electrified too, and still probably cost less than the full LRT option.

    Wending the way through the Golden Triangle might not be an option any longer, so this would be a lot like the old “1A” route option that goes straighter. There might be some branches as the line heads west.

    MnDOT would like to build a passenger line to Mankato someday. Unfortunately, existing tracks don’t allow an easy connection to Minneapolis. Building Southwest as an intercity-compatible line could allow a branch to be (re)built across the Minnesota River, potentially reaching Shakopee (an old crossing at Carver was taken out a few years ago — a bit too far southwest to help Shakopee residents, but it might be easier to get that right-of-way back again than building something totally new).

    Similarly, I keep thinking that a commuter-style service to Monticello would be good to have along existing tracks, but Bottineau is planned to use the inner chunk of that route.

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      Although there’s precedent in New Jersey…FTA and FRA and their insistence on prioritizing “crash-worthiness” over “crash-avoidance” would likely doom any concept of adding a track to the existing freight line and letting both freight and LRT run on them. And on top of that, IIRC the “Riverview line” in New Jersey runs DMUs instead of normal LRT vehicles.

      1. Mike Hicks

        One option I’ve been thinking of is a service that look more like LIRR or the Metro-North railroad out in New York. Denver is building something that looks similar for their airport connector, though I haven’t read up on all of the specifics. It’s been called “commuter rail” and it’s electrified, but I’m not sure if it shares freight tracks anywhere.

        1. Holly Weik

          There are no freight lines to Denver airport–the commuter rail to DIA will be a standalone system. It interfaces with Amtrak at Union Station. They are done building the tracks now, and it’s in test phase. Denver’s other light and commuter lines (current and planned) also do not share with freight, so essentially they are building a passenger rail system from scratch, separate from the freight system. Some segments apparently are reusing abandoned freight lines and remodeling or extending them. They may also run parallel to existing freight lines but are not sharing track. Some are also fixed-guideway lines.


  5. Pingback: Map of the Day: Average Jobs/Population Density Along SWLRT | streets.mn

  6. Andrew B

    I love the idea of scrapping the CTIB and letting Hennepin & Ramsey raise and spend funds on their own transit projects. Screw the other counties standing in the way of every new project, or twisting it into some ridiculous thing. Light rail to Eden Prairie? Bus lines to Lake Elmo?

    If the voters in Carver, Washington, Anoka, Scott, and Dakota hate transit so much then why are we including them? You want to live in the middle-of-nowhere cul-de-sac and not pay taxes fine. We’re not going to spend money on transit to your cornfield.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I love the idea of not fighting for limited dollars with places that have land uses less compatible for transit. Spending millions of CTIB funds for each project on park n rides is a huge opportunity cost.

      That said, what if we left CTIB funded as-is (or cut it back to 0.15% or something), and let the money go for intracounty transit lines? They can still include the two core counties (ex. Gold Line, Red Line, etc), or be only within suburban counties (very rare or small amounts), but this frees them from competing with great (but expensive) projects that only serve core counties (sometimes, only Minneapolis or St Paul proper). While it’s not optimal, we have to remember that suburban residences, jobs, etc aren’t going to just disappear. We need to build better, more cost-effective lines, but there’s value in having bi-directional frequent service to Burnsville via the Orange Line, etc.

    2. James WardenJames Warden

      Not that I disagree with the idea of a referendum and self-taxing, but I don’t think it’s going to solve all or even most of the problems. Southwest had big opposition from core and inner-ring suburbs (Minneapolis and St. Louis Park), and Eden Prairie is in Hennepin County. Central Corridor is the very definition of an urban line, and it faced significant hurdles. I’d bet money an Uptown alignment would face challenges. I still think a county tax is probably the better route to go and it *may* lead to a more rational system overall. But I just don’t see it alleviating the cost problems or project delays unless we decide to severely curtail public input and ability to file legal challenges. That may sound good, but the current procedures arose because public officials did such a bad job in the past listening to communities, particularly marginalized communities. Maddening as this process can be, I’m more willing to pay higher taxes for an over-budget light rail than I am to suffer another neighborhood-destroying Interstate fiasco.

  7. Mike Hicks

    One thing worth mentioning before we get totally freaked out by the cost is that the Central Corridor project would have been well over $1 billion if it ran as far as SWLRT is expected to go. While the Green Line service runs about 11 miles from Saint Paul Union Depot to Target Field, the new track only extends about 9 miles (not counting the tail tracks and maintenance facility). Southwest is planned to run about 15 miles, so right there you have about a 1.6x cost differential.

    The Green Line was budgeted at $957 million, so $1.5 billion is a decent baseline estimate for what Southwest might have cost if it was built in the same 2010-2014 time frame. Add in inflation, and the cost can climb quite a bit.

    The Central Corridor segment probably wasn’t a completely bare-bones project, but it only has a minimal number of bridges and other high-cost items included. The new bridge over I-35W, strengthening the Washington Avenue bridge, smaller bridges over MN-280 and I-94, and the trench around the state capitol building.

    Southwest has always had costs that surprised me, but the length is a big part of the issue. There are a lot of bridges and some tunnels. Some of them are pretty questionable, though there are some that are in place to deal with bad soil or to try and reduce environmental impact through the marshy areas.

    I wonder if there may be some places where it would be cheaper to modify roads to make them pass over/under tracks rather than raising or lowering the LRT.

    It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Southwest costs so much, especially considering how much of it is built along an existing rail corridor. By rights, the Central Corridor should have been the more expensive one per mile, but perhaps the relatively wide University Avenue corridor made things cheaper than they might have been in other places?

    Anyway, within the constraints of the U.S.’s high costs, I’m not sure this has gotten hugely out of hand. Sure would be nice if we could break through whatever it is that makes rail projects generally cost so much, though.

  8. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I’ve been encouraged by Duininck’s statements. I hope this triggers the reckoning and rethinking that is long overdue. But in the end, I’m not optimistic.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      How could anyone possibly be optimistic at this point? I see one last effort to trim the budget back to $1.7B-ish, which if successful will largely be accomplished by watering down what little good there is in this line. As many as 3 stations should be up for cutting from the initial project – if we pick the right ones it won’t hurt ridership too much. It sounds like there are some major environmental problems with the Minnetonka-Eden Prairie portion of the route – which isn’t too surprising when you look where it goes – but I’m not sure there are really any easy solutions there. That entire outer half of the line is really trying to thread the needle at every turn. I think the station locations are good, for the most part, but the problem is connecting them.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        Stopping it at Shady Oak would have the advantage of negating the lawsuit from Minnetonka residents and avoid the costly bridge over the wetlands.

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