Updated: 03/07/2014 6:55 AM
Created: 03/05/2014 2:19 PM KSTP.com
By: Leslie Dyste
The future of the $1.5 billion Southwest Light Rail project could be in jeopardy after the Minneapolis city council sent a forceful message of opposition on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the deadline for a final decision -- when funding could disappear -- is fast approaching.
Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner who also chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, compared the project's current situation to Europe right before World War One broke out. But he said he's worried the blowup in Minnesota could mean the death of the Southwest Light Rail line, and that the project's future is in jeopardy.
"We are building the transportation system to make us thrive, and to flinch on this line right now would be a huge mistake," McLaughlin said.
On Wednesday, the Minneapolis city council may have flinched. It unanimously passed a resolution that is the strongest statement yet of the council's firm opposition to both keeping freight rail and building light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor. That includes burying light rail underneath freight rail, the so-called shallow tunnel option.
Mayor Betsy Hodges then echoed the council's opposition.
The resolution comes after the Met Council decided in January the two best options for the light rail project are a shallow tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis or a reroute of freight rail through St. Louis Park.
The City of St. Louis Park -- and the freight rail company -- both strongly oppose that freight reroute option.
"Under either option, both Minneapolis and St. Louis Park would be better off than not building it at all," McLaughlin said.
The Met Council called the Minneapolis council's resolution "premature" because the final report and recommendations aren't ready yet.
"We've studied enough. We've got three-and-a-half-months now to work this out, but it's time to make a decision," McLaughlin said. "We have to decide. Waiting is not a good answer. Every day we wait, there's another line around the country that's getting ahead of us."
McLaughlin is concerned other transit projects in other states will jump over Southwest Light Rail in the long line for federal funding.
There was one glimmer of hope on Wednesday: The original council resolution would have withheld the City of Minneapolis' municipal consent for the project, which would have created an even larger obstacle for the project to overcome. That language was deleted from the resolution before it passed.
The Met Council is expected to vote on the project's final scope and budget next month. Once that happens, the council has 45 days to seek the consent of Hennepin County and the five cities along the southwest line. The Met Council could still move forward if one city refuses to approve the plan.
McLaughlin said a final decision must be made by the end of June or the project's funding could be at risk.
For details on the SWLRT project, including a map of the route, project costs, and upcoming meetings, visit metrocouncil.org.