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

31 March 2022

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill, passed unanimously in the Senate and with only one dissenting vote in the House, requiring an audit of the under-construction Southwest Light Rail project (aka the Green Line Extension). Running from Downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, the light rail line is currently vastly over-budget and behind schedule. Needing a minimum of $500 million in additional funding, the best-case opening date for the line is now 2027, over a decade later than initially hoped.

Despite the bipartisan support, the current audit seems destined to be a political football, another chapter in an ongoing struggle over transportation policy. The hope is that, by focusing on specific issues like tunnel construction, the audit could shift transit planning responsibilities at the Met Council in the hopes of ensuring fewer problems with a project of this size.

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

While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, that 2009 routing vote will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in Twin Cities planning history. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong with that route choice has gone wrong, often spectacularly. While policymakers are looking at the cascade of cost-overruns around the Southwest Light Rail project, it’s worth looking back at that decision to find lessons for future transit investments.

Getting railroaded 

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

“I can’t even recall how many different task forces, policy groups, public hearings and informational meetings we started,” said Dorfman, who attended her first Southwest Light Rail planning meeting in 1994 as Mayor of St. Louis Park. “In order to get federal funding, it takes a really long time. It takes so long that people move, and new people move in who don’t know about the history, and you have to start all over again.”

When I spoke with her about the project’s long timeline, Dorfman placed a lot of blame on the complex and mercurial federal funding formula. During most of the project planning period, under then-President George W. Bush, the federal formula was infamously anti-urban. It placed nearly all its scoring emphasis on attracting new suburban riders, while giving almost no credit for improving transit for existing people living in urban neighborhoods like Uptown.

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

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

In retrospect, as Dorfman points out, governments have little leverage when faced with an obstinate railroad, and these kinds of decisions should be studiously 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 a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”

Looking back at old news clippings and meeting minutes around the Southwest Light Rail routing decision, Remington seemed like a voice in the wilderness pointing out the problems with the plan. Along with then-Mayor R.T. Rybak, who also wanted the line to include Uptown, Remington pushed hard for a route that would include the now-booming parts of south Minneapolis.

“I thought that [the route choice] was penny-wise and pound-foolish, but also recognized the competing interests,” said Remington. “The Feds said that if the price wasn’t brought down to a certain level, they wouldn’t even entertain the project.”

As the planning process played out, Remington, who now works for an arts advocacy group in the Bay Area, repeatedly tried to push the route toward the Uptown and Wedge areas along Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues. In the end, and ironically in hindsight, the current Kenilworth Corridor option was seen as cheaper and politically easier than getting a tunnel built in south Minneapolis.

“The route that was chosen largely served the white populace, helping white people get to other white people while excluding black and brown people,” Remington said. “I think that perhaps if all of us had really wanted this uptown route and fiercely advocated for it, the Feds would have been hard pressed to turn us away.”

Because it did not interline in downtown Minneapolis, the closely-studied Lyndale tunnel alignment was a non-starter.

Tunnel vision

As someone who’s spent decades following regional transit policy, I continue to think of the Southwest Light Rail as a missed opportunity. In the years since the decision was made, Uptown has been one of the state’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the sparsely-populated Kenilworth route will never attract significant ridership, while proving to be littered with sunk costs and ever-mounting hurdles.

Looking back, there are at least two lessons from how this decades-long saga has played out. The first is that planners should not be so afraid of taking a step back and re-thinking a decision.

Just months after the fateful 2009 routing decision, the one that relied on the dubious Bush-era guidelines, the federal formula changed. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even came to the Twin Cities that March to announce the new policy, touting the new light rail stations along the nascent Green Line light rail in St. Paul. Using a pro-density federal formula, calculations about ridership in Uptown would have improved dramatically. While re-studying the project might have seemed like a big delay in 2009, in retrospect it would likely have saved a great deal 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 Southwest Light Rail, the best alternative — a tunnel underneath Hennepin Avenue, interlining with the Green Line downtown — was never studied as an option. Instead, early on in the process, planners studied an at-grade route down Hennepin Avenue that would have been disruptive to the existing urban fabric. Then, as the routing decision came to a head, planners analyzed a tunnel down Nicollet Avenue that would have been impossible to connect seamlessly downtown. Nobody ever studied a Hennepin Avenue tunnel that represented the best combination of speed, density and efficient use of infrastructure.

In wistful moments, I imagine what Twin Cities transit might be 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 with Eden Prairie and stopping at key intersections along South Hennepin Avenue.

(It’s worth mentioning that the current debate over Hennepin Avenue would also look a lot different with rapid, high-quality rail transit running just underneath the surface of the street.)

But that’s not where we’re at, and the light rail tunnel is under construction in the Kenilworth Corridor. For transit in the southwest metro, the only way forward is through.

“I still think building a light rail transit system that connects with the Blue Line and Green Line, and serves the metro more comprehensively, is the right thing to do,” said Dorfman. “But I get that people look at increasing costs and complexity of it and have concerns.”

The Twin Cities is not the only U.S. city struggling with ineffective and or over-budget transit investments. The light rail problems in Baltimore and Honolulu make Minneapolis look good by comparison. Meanwhile, Dallas has long been a metro area riddled with complete-but-underperforming rail transit, while Denver has begun to see that its ambitious light rail efforts may have made key mistakes by avoiding dense urban areas.

Like Dorfman, with stations already under-construction, I still believe light rail through Hopkins is a good idea, and that today’s under-construction Southwest project can’t open soon enough. Hopefully the difficulties with the project can be an example for others around the state or the country working on challenging transit compromises, and they might learn lessons from the mistakes of the past.

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