Uncertain future for Southwest Light Rail, Northstar commuter line

It’s a tale of two public transit train lines with uncertain futures. We don’t know when the new $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) line will open or whether the Northstar commuter rail line will close.

"I don’t have a date for you yet, but we are making real progress in working with the contractors on resequencing the project so we don’t have any additional costs that are not necessary," Metropolitan Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said about the Southwest line in an interview recorded for "At Issue."

"We’re trying to be smart about it. Time is money and the longer it gets delayed the more costs we’ll incur so we’re making sure we get it open as quickly as possible," Zelle said.

The SWLRT from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie had an early budget of $1.7 billion, but it has since grown to more than $2 billion.

The Northstar Line has a different problem. It opened service from Minneapolis to Big Lake in 2009. It’s always struggled to break even, but the pandemic has nearly killed the service. At one point ridership was down 96%. Although it’s slowly coming back up, its future is uncertain with some lawmakers calling to pull the plug on the service.

"Northstar is an expensive system," Zelle acknowledges. "That’s the conundrum and because of the expense… even before the pandemic, it was costly. So I think now is the opportunity for us to re-look at it carefully and we’re doing that with our county partners who are the funders of that line and we’re going to be taking a hard look and say ‘what are our options?’"

When asked if it’s possible the service could be ended, Zelle responded, "I think everything’s on the table."

You can see the entire interview with Zelle Sunday morning at 10 a.m. on "At Issue." He’ll talk about the future of public transit and how the money coming to Minnesota in the federal infrastructure bill will help in the future.