Southwest light-rail line clears significant federal hurdle

November 15, 2018

The Southwest light-rail line cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday when federal funders indicated they will likely pay for close to half of the projects $2 billion price tag.

Preliminary construction of the nearly 15-mile line linking downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie the biggest public works project in state history is expected to begin this winter.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has notified the Metropolitan Council that it can begin spending local money to start building the project with the expectation that federal funds will be available later for reimbursement.

The notice called a letter of no prejudice is usually a sign that the entire $929 million grant from the federal government is forthcoming.

This news is long awaited and hard earned, said Gov. Mark Dayton, in a statement. The Southwest light rail project is a critical economic development project for the people of Minnesota. When complete, it will improve many thousands of lives from Eden Prairie to north Minneapolis. It will create new jobs, reduce highway congestion, and better connect Minnesotans to one another.

Without funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), it is unlikely Southwest could be built. To date, local money mostly raised through a local sales tax for transit has been used to pay for the design and engineering phase of the project.

The Met Council is expected to award the $799 million construction bid Thursday to Lunda/C.S. McCrossan, the only firm left after the bidding process dragged on for more than a year.

The FTA takes this step very seriously and I am thrilled to receive the approval that allows us to award the states largest civil construction project, said Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff, in a statement.

Over the years, the project has faced strident opposition, particularly from a group of residents who live near the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis, a popular bike and pedestrian trail that separates Lake of the Isles from Cedar Lake. The light-rail line is expected to snake through the narrow corridor, crossing over a bridge at a channel between the two lakes and then submerging in a shallow tunnel.

A citizens group called the Lakes and Park Alliance sued the council in 2014, claiming the project violated federal environmental laws. But a federal judge disagreed and threw out the legal challenge. That prompted the group to appeal the case, a move that is still pending.

The project has also tussled with freight railroads that will share part of its path.

Last summer, the council reached an operating agreement with Glencoe-based Twin Cities Western Railroad (TCW), which will share the Kenilworth corridor with light-rail trains. The pact calls for the council to pay TCW $18.5 million, more than what was budgeted by the council. In return, the railroad dropped a federal lawsuit it had filed.

In the fall of 2017, the council reached another agreement with BNSF Railway, which demanded a concrete wall separating light-rail and freight trains along a short stretch of the route west of Target Field.

More recently, the bidding process to construct the line has been marred with delays. The Met Council rejected four bids in September 2017, ranging from $797 million to $1.08 billion to build the line because they were non responsive.

By May, new bids from two contractors were higher than the first round. The project was still expected to be awarded Aug. 1. But that was delayed until Sept. 30, and then until Thursday.

The council hopes Southwest light rail will begin service in 2023.

Janet Moore 612-673-7752

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