What planners need to learn from the problems facing the Southwest Light Rail

Last week Governor Tim Walz signed a bill, passed unanimously in the Senate and with only one dissenting vote in the House, requiring an audit of the Southwest Light Rail Project being built (aka the Green Line Extension). Ranging from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, light rail line is currently well over budget and behind schedule. Needing a minimum of $500 million in additional funding, best case scenario the opening date of the line is now 2027, more than a decade later than initially expected.

Despite bipartisan support, the current audit appears destined to be political football, another chapter in an ongoing struggle over transportation policy. The hope is that by focusing on specific issues like tunneling, the audit could move public transport planning responsibilities to the Met Council in hopes of ensuring fewer problems with a project of this cut.

However, from a broader perspective, focusing on the obstacles of the project misses the (tunnel through the) forest for the trees. Looking back, it’s clear that the biggest mistake with the Southwest Light Rail lies deeper in the past: the route decision that sent the train around, instead of through, the heart of Uptown Minneapolis.

While it might seem like a good idea at the time, that 2009 routing vote will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in Twin Town planning history. Almost everything that could have gone wrong with this route choice has gone wrong, often dramatically. As policymakers consider the cascade of cost overruns around the Southwest Light Rail project, it’s worth revisiting this decision to learn lessons for future transit investments.

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To be trapped

Few Minnesotans have been as close to the Southwest Light Rail as Gail Dorfman, who rose from suburban mayor to member of the Hennepin County Board during the critical planning years, to serving on the Met Council before retiring to Southern California, where she lives now.

“I can’t even remember how many different task forces, policy groups, public hearings and briefings we started,” said Dorfman, who attended his first Southwest planning meeting. Light Rail in 1994 as Mayor of St. Louis Park. “Getting federal funding takes a long time. It takes so long for people to move out, and new people move in who don’t know the story, and you have to start all over again.

When I told him about the long duration of the project, Dorfman blamed a lot of the complex and mercurial federal funding formula. For most of the project’s planning period under President George W. Bush, the federal formula was notoriously anti-urban. It placed almost all of its emphasis on attracting new commuter riders, while giving almost no credit for transit improvements for existing people living in urban neighborhoods like Uptown.

Along with Hennepin County’s purchase of the Kenilworth Corridor land in 1984, the formula was a major reason the current light rail route was chosen. The other big lesson, as Gail Dorfman describes it, is that the railways are not your friends.

“We overestimated from the start our ability to work well and negotiate a mutually beneficial alignment with the railroad,” Dorfman said, describing years of trying to negotiate with the Twin Towns and Western railway. “In the end, they came back and said they couldn’t do [colocation]. We spent a lot of time looking at the St. Louis Park alternative, not a tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor. That it didn’t work was a disappointment for me.

In retrospect, as Dorfman points out, governments held little sway against a stubborn railroad, and such decisions should be carefully avoided.

What about the lost Uptown option?

“There were a lot of competing interests and different constituencies, and I think [Commissioner] Dorfman did the best she could with what she had in front of her,” said Ralph Remington, who served on the Minneapolis City Council from 2006 to 2010. “It was fucked if you did, damn if you didn’t.

Looking at old press clippings and meeting minutes surrounding the Southwest Light Rail’s route decision, Remington seemed like a voice in the desert pointing out the problems with the plan. With then-Mayor RT Rybak also wanting the line to include Uptown, Remington lobbied for a route that would include the booming parts of south Minneapolis.

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“I thought that [the route choice] was wise and stupid, but also recognized competing interests,” Remington said. “The Feds said if the price didn’t come down to a certain level, they wouldn’t even consider the project.”

As the planning process progressed, Remington, who now works for an arts advocacy group in the Bay Area, repeatedly attempted to push the road into the Uptown and Wedge neighborhoods along Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues. Ultimately, and ironically in hindsight, the current Kenilworth Corridor option was seen as cheaper and politically easier than building a tunnel in south Minneapolis.

“The route that was chosen largely served the white population, helping white people get to other white people while excluding blacks and browns,” Remington said. “I think maybe if we all really wanted that route downtown and fiercely defended it, the feds would have had a hard time denying us.”

Because there was no leading in downtown Minneapolis, the closely studied Lyndale Tunnel alignment was a failure.

tunnel vision

As someone who has spent decades tracking regional transit policy, I still think Southwest Light Rail is a missed opportunity. In the years since the ruling, Uptown has been one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the state. Meanwhile, Kenilworth’s sparsely populated road will never attract significant ridership, while proving to be littered with sunk costs and ever-increasing obstacles.

Looking back, there are at least two lessons to be learned from how this decades-long saga unfolded. The first is that planners shouldn’t be afraid to step back and rethink a decision.

Just months after the fateful 2009 routing decision, one that relied on questionable Bush-era guidelines, the federal formula changed. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even came to the Twin Cities in March to announce the new policy, touting new light rail stations along the nascent Green Line light rail in St. Paul. By using a pro-density federal formula, ridership calculations in Uptown would have improved significantly. While revisiting the project might have seemed like a big delay in 2009, in retrospect, it probably would have saved a lot of time.

The second big lesson is that planners, community members, and elected officials should always have a vision of their best-case scenario. In the case of the Southwest Light Rail, the best alternative—a tunnel under Hennepin Avenue, interlining with the downtown Green Line—was never considered as an option. Instead, early in the process, planners considered an at-grade alignment along Avenue Hennepin that would have disrupted the existing urban fabric. Then, as the route decision came to an end, planners analyzed a tunnel on Nicollet Avenue that would have been impossible to link seamlessly to the city center. No one has ever studied a Hennepin Avenue tunnel that represented the best combination of speed, density and efficient use of infrastructure.

In moments of nostalgia, I imagine what Twin Cities transit would look like today if planners had made the right choice thirteen years ago. It’s impossible to say that there wouldn’t have been problems building a tunnel through the heart of the city, but at least there wouldn’t have been a lake in the way. More likely than not, the train would be running today, quickly connecting St. Paul to Eden Prairie and stopping at key intersections along South Hennepin Avenue.

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(It’s worth mentioning that the current debate on Hennepin Avenue would also be very different with fast, high-quality rail transit running just below the surface of the street.)

But we’re not there yet, and the light rail tunnel is under construction in the Kenilworth Corridor. For transit in the Southwest Metro, the only way to go is to pass.

“I still think building a light rail transit system that connects to the Blue Line and the Green Line, and serves the subway more comprehensively, is the right thing to do,” Dorfman said. “But I understand that people are looking at increasing cost and complexity and have concerns.”

The Twin Cities aren’t the only U.S. city struggling with inefficient and/or over budget transit investments. The problems of light rail in Baltimore and Honolulu make Minneapolis look good in comparison. Meanwhile, dallas has long been a metropolitan area riddled with comprehensive but underperforming rail transportation, while Denver has begun to see that his ambitious light rail efforts may have made major mistakes avoiding dense urban areas.

Like Dorfman, with stations already under construction, I still believe that light rail through Hopkins is a good idea, and that the southwest project under construction today cannot open soon enough. Hopefully, the difficulties encountered with the project can be an example for others in the state or country who are working on tough transit trade-offs, and they could learn from the mistakes of the past.

Jose P. Rogers