A bit of Eden Prairie crystal-ball gazing in the early 1970s is proving more accurate than many might have guessed.
When the city’s Major Center Area Task Force in 1973 concluded its work to guide future development of the area surrounding Eden Prairie Shopping Center, it hoped that options like personal rapid transit or what it called Computer Automated Transit Systems (CATS) would be part of the system to keep traffic moving. In fact, it said development of a CATS system in Eden Prairie by 1995 “may be practical.”
Well, the forecasted date was off, but today’s construction of light-rail transit (LRT) means the vision formed more than 47 years ago is finally coming true, sort of. The Southwest LRT line expected to be done in late 2023 or 2024 will bring another transportation option to Eden Prairie, although there remain challenges in getting riders to the doorsteps of local companies and stores.
Exactly how LRT will change Eden Prairie residents’ lives was addressed Nov. 18 by David Lindahl, the city’s economic development manager, in a public Zoom program organized by the Eden Prairie Community Foundation.
“Obviously, LRT is not going to change everyone’s lives, but it’s definitely going to provide a (transportation) mode option for people,” Lindahl said. “If you live in Eden Prairie and you work downtown (Minneapolis), now you’ll have two options to get down there. You can still take SouthWest Transit’s express bus, which by the way will be faster, we know that, or you can take light rail, which will have more stops but will run much more frequently.”
Proponents of the $2 billion, 14.5-mile-long, Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie Southwest LRT line have argued that the project’s biggest benefits go to employers.
“For our businesses … I think they look at it as another way to get workers, and shoppers, and customers to their place of business,” said Lindahl. “And that’s a big reason we advocated and supported this project, is that Eden Prairie has 3,000-plus businesses, we’ve got 60,000 workers and growing, we’ll end up with 70,000 to 75,000 workers probably in the next 10 years. When I’m out talking to CEOs, that’s always a big thing on their mind is transportation – and more investment in transportation. And when they think about where they want to be located and where they want to stay, that’s a key part of their decision – can we get trucks and people to our place?
“I often say, with my friends who don’t necessarily support it, that in the long run I think light rail will make Eden Prairie more competitive. So I suspect it’ll be a good thing in the long run.”
There are unknowns, certainly, including how COVID-19 and this year’s unrest in the metro area’s core might influence commuting and corporate locating. Even so, Lindahl expects LRT to benefit office development locally. “And Eden Prairie has a lot of office space. Our vacancies have hovered in the low-teens to mid-teens. It could be better,” he said.
Development or redevelopment is likeliest at the City West, Golden Triangle, and Eden Prairie Town Center stations, similar to what’s already occurred at SouthWest Station, where the Elevate apartment complex has recently been constructed. For example, the Optum campus in northeastern Eden Prairie still has capacity for a 10-story office building next to a soon-to-be-built LRT station.
To induce change, the city has adopted an ordinance that requires more intense, walkable, varied development around the stations, again like at SouthWest Station – very dense for EP standards. “That’s pretty close to the model that we’re looking to for redevelopment around our other stations,” said Lindahl.
Still needed is work on that “last-mile challenge” for folks who get off the train but still aren’t within easy walking distance from work or shopping. So, the city is working with SouthWest Transit on possible shuttles to work or the shopping mall. There’s different thoughts out there, from peak shuttles to automated vehicles, not to mention micro mobility like scooters or bikes. “That is really working in certain parts of the country,” he said.
Lindahl said the city recognizes that residents also have concerns about personal safety and crime that might be an unintended consequence of LRT. “We’re taking it seriously,” he said, noting that Eden Prairie Police already are working with their counterparts in Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, and the Metro Transit Police on ideas like a “security integration team” and topics including police training, education, philosophy on prosecuting crimes, and homelessness.
“I think they’re taking a very proactive step,” Lindahl said. “I know we’ll be prepared. Our Police Department would be prepared today. Personally, I just don’t think there’ll be a lot of issues.”
The city has other skin in the game with upgrades to station esthetics, including improved light poles and fencing, plazas and landscaping. Funding will come out of the city’s capital improvements budget in the public works area. A lot of that budget is financed through liquor sales.
In the end, in Eden Prairie, he expects additional tax revenue, more shoppers, better economy, and more quality-of-life choices as expected benefits of LRT. “At the end of the day, it’s good.”
Lindahl says there have been debates all along the way as to whether the project makes sense for EP. Some folks are still convinced it’s a “boondoggle,” a word he has heard often.
“I would often say to these folks: You may not take the train, but your grandkids likely will. As we continue to grow and become denser, we need ways to keep our mobility working well. And this will help. It’s not the panacea – it won’t solve all the traffic congestion issues – but it will provide another option and move a lot of people every day.”
(Mark A. Weber is executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation, which hosted the public event on LRT that is referenced in this article. David Lindahl is a former board member of the Foundation.)