Trimming Southwest Light Rail

Following a resounding rejection of the recent cost estimate, Metro Transit staff has offered up a menu of options to trim $341 million from the cost of the Green Line Extension in the Southwest Corridor to keep the budget at $1.653 billion. The options were evaluated against these criteria:

  • Follow SWLRT Design Criteria, including criteria for safety & security
  • Positively impact (increase) FTA project rating, ridership, equity, environmental benefits and multimodal connections
  • Minimal or no adverse impact to project schedule, capital cost and operating cost
  • Actively engage and encourage input from interested and impacted stakeholders

For the sake of simplicity, for this story I’ve only looked at capital cost. What follows is my preference for the cuts. However, you’ll find them all displayed at the end of the story so you can see the full range of choices.

Nice to have, but necessary?

Before discussing station eliminations and shortening the line, the staff report lists a series of reductions in nice-to-have amenities and behind-the-scenes details that would prevent cuts to actual transit service. The amenities include:

$550-600K – Reduce Station Site Furnishings Project-wide by 50%
$1.8-2.3M – Reduce Station Art Project-wide by 50%
$4-4.5M – Reduce Station Art Project-wide by 100%
$8-9M – Reduce Landscaping Project-wide by 50%
$11-13M – Reduce Landscaping Project-wide by 75%
$1-2M – Remove 2 Pedestrian Underpasses at Opus Station
$550-600K – Delete Trail Underpass Under Freight Tracks at Louisiana Station
$13-14M – Delete Trail/Pedestrian Bridge Crossing of LRT and Freight Railroad East of Beltline Station
$12-14M – Delete N. Cedar Lake Trail Bridge at Penn Station

These taken together would save about $40 million, more or less. That’s well short of the total, but it’s hard to believe that stations should be deleted in order to preserve 100 percent of the art, landscaping and bike amenities.

The list of behind-the-scenes cuts includes:

$10-12M – Reduce fleet size by two vehicles
$8-9M – Reduce Operations & Maintenance Facility (OMF) to 30 vehicles
$250-300K – Modify Non-Revenue Vehicle Storage Bldg at $250-300K OMF
$500K-1M – Modify Cold Storage building at OMF
$8.5-9.5M – Replace Duct Bank with Cable Trough
$1.3-1.8M – Modify Track and Shady Oak Station
$1.5-2.5 – Modify LRT Bridge at Glenwood

That’s another $33 million, so now we’re up to about $73 million–$268 million to go.

Take a hard look at Eden Prairie

Shortening the line in Eden Prairie looks probable, especially eliminating the Mitchell Road station and park-ride lot. That’s worth $138-145 million.

However, there’s a real argument to be made for shortening the line even more. Eden Prairie, along with Chaska and Chanhassen, is an “opt out” community that left the Metro Transit system years ago and formed its own transit system, South West Transit. South West runs an extensive commuter express service to downtown Minneapolis. It is anchored at Southwest Station’s 1000-car park-ride, where the LRT would end if shortened from Mitchell Road.

The SW line in Eden Prairie

The SW line in Eden Prairie

Back in August 2013, the Eden Prairie city council passed a resolution listing conditions that they would require of Metro Transit before they would accept light rail at Southwest Station. These included:

1. The construction of additional parking for light rail at Southwest Station, so LRT passengers wouldn’t use the express bus parking.

2. That South West Transit “remain the principal branding at Southwest Station.”

The resolution states that LRT will have to compete with South West’s express buses for passengers. Normally, when a rail line is built, every effort is made to divert bus trips onto it, thereby maximizing the economies of scale that rail provides. Instead, Eden Prairie is demanding that the region continue to subsidize bus service that diverts riders from LRT.

Without the 2000 peak period commuters that currently bus from Southwest Station, it’s hard to justify extending light rail to Eden Prairie at all. If you take away the main source of commuters, what’s left is peak period reverse commuting, very light off-peak ridership, and a couple hundred commuters at the remaining park-rides. That’s not enough to justify good bus service, never mind a rail extension costing over half a billion dollars.

Cutting back the line to the next station at Eden Prairie Town Center will save about $240 million. Trimming it even further to the Golden Triangle Station will increase the savings to about $370 million. That more than takes care of the budget shortfall. The report doesn’t list the option of stopping short of Eden Prairie altogether, but that probably cuts the budget by at least $500 million, when you throw in the reductions to the LRT fleet because the line is shorter. Don’t go to Eden Prairie and the money problem is more than solved.

Other worthwhile cuts, and one very bad idea

Since I doubt that even half of the Eden Prairie mileage will be eliminated, more cuts will be needed. The Minneapolis portion of the line has two stations of questionable value in the immediate future. The Penn Avenue Station in Minneapolis doesn’t deserve to be built. Almost no one lives within a quarter mile walk of it and it will never be served by a viable feeder bus. There is talk of future development around the station, but until that’s solid, Penn Avenue should remain unbuilt. Doing so will save about $15 million.

Similarly, the Van White Boulevard Station should be deferred until there is redevelopment of the adjacent Public Works pavement crushing facility. Like Penn, it will never have a viable feeder bus. Currently the only traffic generator within walking distance is Dunwoody Institute. Deferral will save $6 million.

A very bad idea is to defer the Royalston Station. It’s the real transit connection to North Minneapolis and deferring it would be a shocking reversal of the Met Council’s purported commitment to racial and economic equity. Not to mention that it will see more ridership than either Van White or Penn Avenue.


Goal: Cut $341 million from the budget.

My preferences:

$40M – Reduce “nice to have” amenities
$33M – “Behind the scenes” savings
$21M – Cut Penn Avenue Station, defer Van White Station
$94M – Subtotal

$240M  – Cut back to Eden Prairie Town Center Station or
$370M – Cut back to Golden Triangle Station or
$500+M – Cut back to Opus Station

Tables and Maps from the report

Here are the cost reduction tables and location maps from the staff report, so you can weigh the cuts yourself.









Mpls map

SLP map

Hopkins Tonka map

The SW line in Eden Prairie

The SW line in Eden Prairie

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.