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.

36 thoughts on “Trimming Southwest Light Rail

  1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    As you noted, you looked only at capital costs, but there are arguments in favor of building the line to Eden Prairie Town Center. I have discussed in previous threads about the number of jobs and the increasing number of residents within that stations walkshed.

    I’m also not sure that cutting the trail bridges is a good idea. Would need more information about the “exposure factor” (number of bikes/peds per day times number of trains per day) before we look at cutting those.

  2. Dan

    Question – Has anything been published about expected LRT trip times from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis or the U of M (I believe those are the locations SW serves, right?)

    As we learned from the Green Line and Route 94, people will still keep taking the bus if it’s faster. These requirements around SouthWest are extremely annoying, but if the LRT trip takes longer than the bus trip, people will continue to do that regardless of branding or anything else, so I agree, don’t even bring the line there if it would result in a longer trip for commuters.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Ultimately this is a textbook example of how with light rail the compromises you have to make to make it “most things to most people” instead of “the best option for some people”. If the goal was to get riders from Eden Prairie to downtown as fast as possible, we didn’t select long slow detour through uptown, but should have lost the long slow detour through Golden Triangle. But then commuter rail would be a better option. If it’s to serve as dense of jobs/housings area as possible while forgetting about making it attractive to suburb to downtown commuters it should go through Uptown, but then again maybe extending the Greenway streetcar to downtown Hopkins would have been better. Althought I think the Green and Blue line extensions should be built as opposed to not built, my own opinion is Riverview should have been next to form an LRT “Iron Triangle” anchored by downtowns, the mall, and the airport, then think about other modes for other corridors.

      1. Cameron Slick

        Well obviously, that’s been pointed out with ten years of face palming the Metros Very Serious People.

        In case my sarcasm didn’t stick, very good point.

      1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

        I’m being realistic about the market potential to Eden Prairie. The existing bus service is a decent predictor of the shape of demand. South West runs every 6 minutes in the rush hour but every 30 minutes in the off-peak. Reverse commute potential is small compared to in-commute, about every 30 minutes. The line serves mostly peak period employment concentrations, so the off-peak potential is quite limited. South West has been reducing its already modest local circulator services because they’re not financially viable. Face it–Eden Prairie’s primary transit market is downtown commuters. Take that away and there’s not much left.

        1. Wayne

          So let them keep their express buses and nothing else. It’s what they opted into by opting out of metro transit. MT should never have ever considered building a train to an opt-out municipality without requiring them to opt back in.

  3. Monte Castleman

    From my perspective, if I was using the line to commute to downtown Minneapolis or the U of M, it wouldn’t be make or break to have Mitchell or even Southwest. Driving a bit farther to the Golden Triangle is easier and cheaper by a magnitude than driving all the way dowtown or to the U. SInce Eden Prairie is sending signals they won’t approve the line if it doesn’t go to Town Center, makes sense to stop there (for now). Maybe in the future we could even extend it to the huge jobs/population cluster in downtown Chanhassen.

  4. Alex

    It’s incredibly tone-deaf of the Met Council to even consider eliminating the Royalston station, which by any reasonable analysis will get the majority of the line’s transfers to/from North Minneapolis. It also displays their laughable station boarding projections – 21st St, served by one windy bus line, is going to get 8x the riders as Royalston, served by two aBRT lines? Transit planning really is a pseudoscience.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I don’t really know the current bus service over there (or really anywhere), but the Royalston Station site is about two blocks from Target Field Station.

      (1) How many of those transfer would just switch to the other stop?
      (2) How much less convenient would it be? and
      (3) Could anything be done with the bus stops/routes to reduce #2?

      1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

        The Royalston Station will provide a more convenient connection to North Side buses–less of a walk.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Right, thus #3.

          Just looking at the map (may be misleading), it looks like the stops are currently on Olson mid-block between Border/Oak Lake Ave. and 7th and on the northeast corner of 7th and Olson.

          If I’m tracking the Royalston station location correctly, those are all about a block and a half from the planned station, assuming they aren’t moving (may not be a good assumption).

          They’re about two blocks from Target Field Station, and maybe they could be moved closer to it?

          Anyway, I’m not saying get rid of Royalston, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think about other ways of achieving these connections.

    2. Tyler SchowTyler Schow

      I don’t know if it would make a huge difference, but MT intends to extend route 2 to 21st street station when SWLRT opens.

  5. Wayne

    I’m kind of appalled that EP would expect light rail service and continue to be an opt-out and try to duplicate service and compete with such a huge investment. If that’s their attitude they can seriously piss off and be left out. There’s tons of people in transit-dependent areas that can better use that money. If there wasn’t such a jobs concentration in Golden Triangle I’d say just end the line In Hopkins and spend the savings on feeder service or Bottineau.

    Seriously, why are we spending half a billion dollars on building a train for people who by all indications don’t even want it? All while local bus service is atrocious and in desperate need of investment.

    1. Wayne

      Seriously I bet a 3C alignment that ended in Hopkins would have just as good of ridership as the full crap alignment to awful EP they’re sitting on now for about the same cost.

  6. Keith Morris

    Crossing off stations and track miles in EP is a no brainer, especially in light of them still opting out of MT. That’s ridiculous. While Minneapolis does have a couple of admittedly very low performing stations planned we have to keep Royalston. The development potential there is too great with how far out development has been occurring on the edge of North Loop like around the Holiday gas station which is unrecognizable from a year ago and if the soccer stadium gets landed there it would be a huge misstep to cut it.

  7. Erix

    I would:
    -Shorten the line to Town Center Station. No point in serving a massive park & ride facility when it already has express bus service and is mainly for commuters to downtown Minneapolis. Not many jobs within walking distance of Southwest Station.

    -Light rail, freight rail, and Kenilworth Trail at-grade through Kenilworth Corridor (only if this will save money, not increase cost).

    -Eliminate public art and other “wants”.

    -Eliminate pedestrian bridge near Penn Station.

    -Eliminate Penn Station, Van White Station, and Royalston Station. These areas are undeveloped and are next to active BNSF tracks that see around seventeen freight trains per day. There is also talk of building a commuter rail storage facility at Linden Yards. There is no bus service in these areas and it will be difficult to establish feeder bus services with enough ridership. Instead increase bus frequency and improve service from North Minneapolis to Target Field Station.

    -Not sure if this will bring cost down, but another idea would be to eliminate the bridge over BNSF tracks leading to Royalston Avenue, and instead have light rail at-grade parallel to the BNSF tracks and have a station next to the existing Northstar platform.

    1. Payton Chung

      P&R lots are probably not necessary along the entire line, but line-end P&R stations tend to turn in very good ridership numbers — they allow the transit system to reach everyone in those low-density suburbs many miles out, many of which are incapable of supporting even rudimentary bus service. So even though Southwest Station might seem useless given that it’s just half a mile past Eden Prairie Town Center, it does serve a significant market niche.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I understand the plan is to build structured parking at Golden Triangle if Mitchell and Southwest are deleted. I think that would be close enough to the “end of the line”.

  8. GlowBoy

    Wow, opt-out SW transit wants to still have its express buses openly compete with the light rail line we’re proposing to spend most of a billion all the way out there? That’s a fatally flawed plan.

    End the line at SLP or Hopkins, and let SW Transit run their bus lines there if they want to. We’ve got plenty of other places that need the transit dollars more (Bottineau, Orange Line, aBRT all over the place, etc).

  9. 72 Chrysler

    We could save about two billion by just extending the line to Royalston.
    There should be a reason to spend so much money- Being an option for the very rich if it happens to snow alot isn’t a good reason.

    Start now by scrapping any plan that doesn’t serve core density. Pretending an ‘equity’ station in a virtual frontier West of downtown will justify the line has to stop. If it’s so important, just extend it one stop.

    Really, start planning like the city is going to be here more than 20 years and go underground. Start in South, go through Downtown and end north. or vice-versa.

    You have tons of jobs downtown if nobody’s noticed.

  10. David Greene

    Eliminating Van White is a complete non-starter from an equity standpoint. Rather than doing that, we need to push Minneapolis to move the impound lot! It is the city restricting the development there.

    Even Penn with limited bus service is potentially an equity builder but I am ok deferring it. I’d like to see it roughed-in though with a timeline for full implementation.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I guess there is something “equitable” about having stops surrounded by nothing in the city as well as out in the suburbs at the end of the line…

      More seriously, it’s hard to see either Van White or Penn as doing much material for equity, given their surroundings and, as to Penn, the challenge to get to it from the north. They probably contribute more on that front than the rest of the non-Royalston line, but that’s not saying much.

      1. David Greene

        The equity at Van White will be TOD. If the city council were to get off their collective status quo duffs they’d see that moving the impound lot would allow an even bigger impact but even without that there is significant land available for development.

        Why would we *not* build a station in a place with lots of developable land, right in an area that desperately needs housing and jobs?

        Not related to equity, the Basilica is also walking distance from Van White and quite a few members are from the SW burbs.

        1. Eric

          Except that the Van White Station is right next to BNSF Railway’s Wayzata Subdivision. Seventeen daily freight trains and increasing. We need to stop developing land right next to railroad corridors, or we will end up in another situation similar to that in the Kenilworth Corridor right now.

          Also important to note, the Linden Yards area is a proposed site for a passenger rail storage and maintenance facility.

          1. David Greene

            Harrison has had long ongoing discussions about the layover facility. They’ve got the city and county down to much less acreage than was proposed before. They’d still like to get rid of it entirely, of course.

            It’s a little ridiculous to argue that development won’t happen because you explicitly say development shouldn’t happen there. I see no reason not to develop around this LRT corridor.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Hm. It’s very hard to see new construction, without very strict oversight, as having significant benefits to equity (unless perhaps its in an area with a tight housing market that’s desperate for supply). Are there specific plans in place that ensure that whatever will be built will enhance equity?

          How does an area with no people “desperately need” anything? Other than people, of course.

          As for the Basilica, Van White is only marginally closer to it than Royalston.

          1. David Greene

            The current BCV master plan was designed by the neighborhoods, so presumably it addresses their needs. Ryan has a nice proposal for Linden Yards that’s enthusiastically supported by the community because it brings housing and jobs to the area.

            And it’s NOT an area with no people. There are people right across the bridge. There’s a secondary commercial corridor right there too. If Dunwoody is walkable from Van White,. so are these places. And the bikeshed is significant.

            Point taken on the Basilica but currently it *feels* closer to Van White because of better street connectivity. It also feels closer to SW suburban people because they don’t have to backtrack. My guess is people from there will disembark at Van White, not Royalston.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              “And it’s NOT an area with no people. There are people right across the bridge.”

              With all due respect, that’s just not true:

              The immediate area is the impound lot and some industrial land/buildings (at least some of which are empty and unused).

              About a half mile walk away, there is a small cluster of houses. About the same distances there are some occupied commercial buildings that presumably include some workers. But that’s about it.

              1. David Greene

                Half a mile? Not even close. Maybe 2-3 long blocks, certinaly to the commercial buildings.

                You’re also ignoring the comments in your own article about the city already having committed to shringing the impound lot.

                Van White is going to bring development. The question is how much the city will allow to happen. The neighbohood has said it wants as much desity as we can bring.

                1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  It may well bring development. That’s great.

                  But that’s not the same as doing much (1) to serve existing communities, or (2) to enhance equity.

                  The plans look great. I hope they happen. And I hope they leads to a vibrant, diverse, economically mixed community with affordable housing.

                  But they are still only plans.

                  1. David Greene

                    Van White would be a great location for the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market too. There’s already impound lot land that can’t be redeveloped due to poor soil conditions.

      2. David Greene

        Equity means we sometimes make an investment in a community where we would not make that investment in a wealthier community. In other words, we discard the pure utilitarian view and look at the larger picture of patterns of past disinvestment and current areas of need. If it costs money so be it. Nothing wothwhile is easy.

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