Susu Jeffrey | Subsidizing Southwest LRT

The Final Environmental Impact Study finds that “The Project operation will increase the GHG (greenhouse gas) emission in the Twin Cities area by approximately 2,000 metric tons per year in 2040, compared to No Build alternative” (SWLRT FEIS, p. 3-204).

By Susu Jeffrey  October 18, 2017

If you shop in Hennepin County you’ll pay for Southwest Light Rail Transit from suburban Eden Prairie to Minneapolis. Unlike other LRT projects, SWLRT state funding was rejected by legislators because it would serve less than one percent of the county’s population.

Assuming people shop where they live, the one million Hennepin residents will pay about $1,000 each for the billion-dollar light rail project.

SWLRT is estimated to cost $2-billion (without cost overruns). Federal matching funds of $1-billion would kick-in only after Hennepin County secured its $1-billion half of the projected cost. When the Minnesota legislature determined that SWLRT was not a good public investment, county officials resolved the $1-billion loss by doubling local sales taxes.

In addition to the $1-billion construction cost local shoppers would be responsible for cost overruns, plus $30-million a year in operating costs. County residents will be nickeled-and-dimed for a generation as the bond payments, plus interest, are gradually paid.

SWLRT is the most expensive public works project
ever proposed in Minnesota.  

Sales taxes are regressive and include most services, gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol—pretty much everything but clothing and grocery food. Watching nearly empty light rail cars roll by is a tax and spend disincentive.

SWLRT is the most expensive public works project ever proposed in Minnesota.

Pro-LRT

People who support Southwest LRT because they support light rail might consider that the air-conditioned, Wi-Fi equipped buses from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis currently take 20-minutes while the light rail would take 41-minutes.

The proposed track of SWLRT in Minneapolis city limits is through residential and parkland areas, not densely enough populated to obtain high ridership. Each ride would be subsidized by county taxpayers at the rate of approximately $20.

SWLRT was developed by the George W. Bush administration, former state Sen. Julie Sabo noted in a 2011 Daily Planet article. The most important factor “was for rail service to provide time saving, direct, no transferring needed, rides to people living in suburbs and exurbs into downtown.”

Sabo continued:

Neither urban communities nor environmental impacts were
prioritized in Federal criteria until after President Obama took
office, and the alignment had already been selected.  As a result,
SWLRT is suburban-centric and avoids urban density and
economically stressed communities in the city.
It will do what it was designed to do, promote suburban
development and enter and exit the city quickly.

SWLRT in Minneapolis is planned to run in a very narrow corridor between backyards, condominiums and heavy freight trains that carry highly flammable ethanol and South Dakota oil. It would track through a residential area and then in the parkland between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles—at the top of the Chain of Lakes.

The route would eliminate a 44-acre urban forest and the popular Kenilworth commuter bike trail at least during the 2-year construction period. It would include a submerged half mile long tunnel with solid steel sheet sides pounded down 55-feet to anchor the train that would otherwise pop up and down with fluctuating groundwater pressure.

The tunnel would be permanently dewatered daily according to the Burns & McDonnell water study (2013-14) for the Metropolitan Council. The study theorizes a rate of 15,000 gal/day dewatering from inside the tunnel into sanitary sewers which were not built for that much fluid traffic. The water would run through treatment facilities and feed into the Mississippi.

Another 9,000 gal/day from around the outside of the tunnel would be piped into storm sewers, treated, except for chlorides (salt), and returned into the groundwater.

The Burns-McDonnell water study continues, “Impervious steel sheet pile walls…will extend ten or more feet beneath the water table in some areas and, therefore, ha[ve] the potential to block horizontal groundwater flow and potentially result in an increase in water levels,” that is, flooding.

The uncertain groundwater movement to resupply lakes Cedar, Isles and Calhoun/Maka Ska with natural earth-scrubbed spring water is a water quality conundrum. In fact, the Met Council’s 2016 SWLRT Final Environmental Impact Statement noted adverse effects to the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

The possibility that flooding would affect the groundwater level, the freight line, the proposed shallow tunnel, the Bryn Mawr-Penn Avenue LRT station, and nearby residences—is not elaborated. Lake levels, water quality and the absorbency or contraction rate of land denuded of trees, deep-rooted prairie vegetation planted along the trails and everything from fish and frogs to coyotes and owls—are financial “externality” issues.

SWLRT would result in the loss of approximately 60 acres of habitat and impact 20 wetlands.

The Cedar Lake commuter bike trail is laid atop the old Cedar railroad
yards—on top, which is why pollution remediation was not required. A toxic plume could ooze into the construction-disturbed ground and groundwater. Turning our living lakes into scenery would be irreversible.

The Wall

The latest addition to SWLRT plans is a concrete 10-foot by three-foot wide crash wall from the light rail/heavy rail split at Royalston to the proposed Bryn Mawr-Penn Avenue LRT station, demanded by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

The ethanol and oil-carrying heavy freight trains co-locate along about 8-miles of the proposed SWLRT electric track but only 1-mile is protected by the wall because of “regulations.” Translated that means insurance laws.

Co-location of freight trains carrying hazardous cargo next to electrified trains in the Kenilworth Corridor inspired an LRT Done Right, “Blast Zone” Map. Electrified trains like the proposed SWLRT are known to shoot out “sparks.”

The half-mile evacuation zone based on US DOT safety regulations for ethanol/oil rail fires include: Target Field, Farmers Market, Dunwoody College, Blake School, Anwatin Middle and Bryn Mawr Elementary schools, my house, Kenwood Elementary School, Calhoun Village Shopping Center, East Cedar Lake Beach (i.e. “Hidden Beach”), South Cedar Beach, the Jones Harrison Home, Calhoun Beach Club, and the Whole Foods-Calhoun shopping center.

Solution

But isn’t it worth it to get all those cars off the road?

The Final Environmental Impact Study finds that “The Project operation will increase the GHG (greenhouse gas) emission in the Twin Cities area by approximately 2,000 metric tons per year in 2040, compared to No Build alternative” (SWLRT FEIS, p. 3-204). That is, SWLRT adds to the annual projected regional total of GHG. In terms of meeting the state’s GHG reduction goals it would be a net benefit to Minnesota to not build SWLRT.

GHG reduction from LRT is contingent upon the route. The proposed track of SWLRT in Minneapolis is through residential and park areas, not densely enough populated to obtain high ridership. If SWLRT had been scoped through Uptown or the Northside everybody would be onboard.

The Metropolitan Council recently rejected all four construction bids on the basis of price and “responsiveness.” The construction package included 29 new bridges, modifications to seven existing bridges, six new pedestrian tunnels, two LRT tunnels—under the Kenilworth corridor and Highway 62—in addition to demolishing 14 buildings, building 15 stations, 117 retaining walls, 153,440 feet of track, freight rail relocation, underground utilities, drainage, sidewalk and road pavements, street lighting, traffic signals and foundations for the overhead light rail electric poles.

All for the (less than) one percent.

Considering what good we could do with a billion dollars, SWLRT looks absurd. Personally I would invest in children and water.

A version of this article also appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.


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One comment

  1. Postscript: SWLRT is estimated to cost $2-billion (without cost overruns). Federal matching funds of $1-billion would kick-in only after Hennepin County secured its $1-billion half of the projected cost. When the Minnesota legislature determined that SWLRT was not a good public investment, county officials resolved the $1-billion loss by doubling local sales taxes. Sales taxes are regressive affecting the less well off to a greater degree.

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