Met Council should reconsider investment in Light Rail Transit

Editor’s note: Burnsville City Council member Mary Sherry shares with ECM readers a counterpoint to the ECM Editorial Board’s recent editorial titled, “LRT needs to move ahead as part of long-term statewide plan”


By Mary Sherry

Burnsville City Council Member

Elected officials have to weigh many competing options – usually all good – when it comes to spending taxpayer money.  I should know; I am an elected official – a Burnsville City Council member to be specific. When I see the number of options competing for scarce public transit funding, I try to think like a decision maker, even if I am not the one making the decision.

Thus, I must respond to the Oct. 4 editorial, “LRT needs to move ahead as part of a long-term statewide plan.” I believe the Metropolitan Council should review and potentially reconsider its investment in the Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) project.  Here is why.

According to background information available, the Southwest LRT is expected to cost nearly $1.2 billion. This investment would result in approximately 15 miles of new light rail track (and the things associated with it).   In my opinion, $1.2 billion dollars could complete a number of other transportation projects that would have a broader impact in the Twin Cities.

Take, for example, the I-35W corridor. The Metropolitan Council is also working to develop the Orange Line using Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT, in contrast to LRT, uses buses on existing roadway corridors rather than requiring the development of a train system.

There are, however, many similarities between the two.  BRT buses would use their own lanes/shoulders to provide quick and efficient movement through traffic. They would follow a very regular and consistent schedule, similar to that of light rail. Most importantly, they would connect people to and from destinations without the need of a personal automobile.

This BRT Orange Line project would require stations along the I-35W corridor at the already existing Burnsville Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) Bus Station, 98th Street, American Boulevard (near Best Buy and Southtown), 66th Street, an already constructed 46th Street station, Lake Street and several downtown Minneapolis stops.

This project would also require and result in interchange improvements at I-494/I-35W and Lake Street/I-35W.  These interchange improvements would have the dual benefit of improving mobility for both transit users and motorists.  The very roughly estimated cost for this project is $300 million, including the interchange improvements.

This is obviously a very large investment, but it is only 25 percent of the base project cost for the Southwest LRT.  Using that math, the Metropolitan Council could construct four similarly scoped BRT projects for the cost of the lone Southwest LRT project.  Four BRT projects would also benefit a larger percentage of commuters.

My opinion is NOT that the Southwest LRT project is a “bad” project.  For three years, I commuted to downtown Minneapolis via the Hiawatha Line.  It is an impressive part of the transit system.  However, when I consider that this is “other people’s money,” I question the value the entire metropolitan region would receive from this investment. To me, it seems there are other more cost-effective options to move people to and from work and recreation.

This is also not a “suburban” rant against transit.  As I’ve noted, I am a strong supporter of mass transit. However, I would recommend transit projects that would (likely) connect with more users and more destinations.  While the Metropolitan Council may certainly have documentation that the project is cost effective, I would just point out again that $1.2 billion is a lot of money for 15 miles of track.

When the City of Burnsville develops its capital improvement plans, we try to find the best value for the taxpayers in Burnsville.  I’m not sure this project does that for the taxpayers in the metropolitan region.

I know how I would vote on this project if I had the chance.  How about you?