After months of quiet negotiation, Hennepin County and the Met Council crafted an agreement to bridge a currently estimated $340 million funding gap to complete the Metro Green Line Extension project. The County Board gave its thumbs-up on Aug. 22. Last Wednesday, Sept. 13, the Met Council approved the deal by voice vote.
The $2.7 billion, 14.5-mile light rail line is approximately 75% built. Trains are slated to begin passenger service in 2027, connecting Eden Prairie’s four stations to 12 others in Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis. At Target Field, it will join the existing Green and Blue Lines, Northstar commuter rail and Metro Transit buses.
Note: Metro Green Line Extension is also referred to as Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT).
“There will be other actions to formalize the shared agreement later, subsequent to additional work-on-budget,” explained Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle before the vote. “But at this point it is important to agree to bring this before the body at this time.”
The agreement has the Met Council covering 45% of the cost of completing construction and beginning fare-paying passenger service, up to $150 million. Hennepin County will pay 55%, up to $190 million. If the cost rises above the current estimate, the county and the Met Council will share the balance on a 50-50 basis.
The Met Council will also pay for systems testing, personnel training and other start-up costs prior to passenger service. It intends to use federal funding sources. Hennepin County will pay its share with county transit tax revenue.
A revised project budget will be sent to the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) for a financial review and approval in early 2024. The FTA closely monitors projects that it helps fund. Earlier this year, FTA officials inspected the project, including the Kenilworth corridor construction sites and its challenging tunnel.
In August, the Met Council provided additional time for some of its 17 members to more fully evaluate both the Green Line agreement and a $75.3 million grant offer from Hennepin County. The grant would enable the Blue Line Extension light rail project between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park to move forward on a variety of pre-construction tasks through 2024.
Both agreements provide a governance process for each light rail project and identify the county and the Met Council’s responsibilities.
For the MinnPost coverage of the Aug. 23 Met Council meeting, click here.
To review the County-Met Council Blue Line Extension agreement, click here.
In August, Met Council members Susan Vento, Wendy Wulff, and Deb Barber voted against the agreement for the Metro Green Line. Each represents a suburban district. Vento and Barber called for more transparency in vetting the budget. Wulff echoed their concerns, warning her colleagues, “We’re going to be the rubber stamps that everybody thinks that we are.”
Met Council District 3 member Tyronne Carter was absent from the Sept. 13 meeting and vote. Carter represents Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Chanhassen and cities bordering Lake Minnetonka.
Pushback also came from state legislators. Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, supports Southwest Light Rail but claimed on Aug. 23 that the Hennepin County-Met Council agreement “is in direct contrast to the intention of our transportation budget we passed this year.”
Tabke, the vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said that funding for Southwest Light Rail and the Blue Line Extension can be found “without sacrificing other important regional projects.” He intends to introduce a bill in February that would provide stronger guidelines for the use of state monies for public transit projects.
SWLRT critic Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told KSTP-TV political reporter Tom Hauser on Hauser’s WCCO radio morning spot that, “There is no amount of money out there that they (the Met Council) won’t take to complete this project.” Dibble claimed that the Met Council “operates, out of sight, out of view, without the accountability and transparency and management of an elected body.” Dibble’s district includes voters living along the Kenilworth Corridor and tunnel construction sites.
But Met Council member John Pacheco Jr. strongly disagrees. He represents portions of Edina, southwest Minneapolis, all of Richfield, the airport, and Bloomington. The existing Metro Blue Line LRT serves the airport-hotel and Mall of America complex.
Near the end of the Sept. 13 Met Council meeting, Pacheco commended both Hennepin County staff and Met Council staff for their work on the agreement. “Nothing is done here … somewhat under the table or that no one is aware of,” Pacheco said. “We’ve had great discussions. … As we ask for information, we get the information.”
“I appreciate the work Chair Zelle has done,” Pacheco added. “He has taken a lot of hits out there in the community, and I have sat there with him on some of them. I’m behind him, actually.” The regional panel broke into laughter.
On Saturday at SouthWest Station, construction crews continued to work on the base of the passenger drop-off car loop and the new parking ramp approaches. Although the very delicate work of constructing secant walling near the Cedar-Isles condo residence is moving slowly, stretches of the rest of the Kenilworth tunnel have already been covered with soil. It will form the base for tunnel-topping landscapes with hiking and biking trails lined with grasses, trees, shrubs and benches.
The Southwest Light Rail is 75% complete. However, when the Legislature reconvenes in February, lawmakers could prompt delays for the Green Line and Blue Line projects.
Eden Prairie legislators were asked by EPLN via email to comment on Sen. Dibble’s and Rep. Tabke’s statements about the Hennepin County-Met Council funding agreement. As of the publication of this article, EPLN has yet to hear from them.
Editor’s note: Writer Jeff Strate serves on the EPLN Board of Directors. Jeff was also a member of the SWLRT Community Advisory Committee.
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