Opponents Look to Derail Southwest Light Rail Project
Down economy inspires some to scrutinize spending on the project, which would run through Hopkins.
One day a light rail station may stand at Eighth Avenue and Excelsior, a boulevard may open a gateway from the station to Mainstreet and visitors may exit the trains to spend the day shopping and eating in downtown Hopkins.
As head of the House transportation committee, Beard alone has a strong voice in the matter. And his opposition is part of a growing pushback all over the country against large-scale rail projects. This is a trend some Minnesota rail supporters fear will only increase with the Republicans' ascension to power at the state Legislature.
The focus of this pushback is on higher-profile rail projects, such as the proposed high-speed rail through Wisconsin and a pricey New Jersey commuter rail tunnel since nixed by the governor. Now local light rail is falling under the same criticism. State Senator Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, the new Majority Leader, promised she and new chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee Chairman, Willmar Republican Joe Gimse, would scrutinize the Southwest project, according to Finance and Commerce.
Beard was unavailable for comment because of a family emergency and Koch didn't respond to repeated interview requests. The state Republican Party did not respond to an interview request, either.
"I think we're just in a real kind of uncharted time," said Kersten Elverum, Hopkins' director of economic development and planning. "I think with the recession, and I just think with the political climate, (the public has) gotten skeptical about any level of government."
Recent criticism of the Southwest project is particularly striking. Opponents had criticized specific details, and some neighborhood groups in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie have opposed the proposed proximity to their homes. But according to Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, through nearly three dozen public hearings, nobody had advocated for killing the project outright.
It's the economy
The issue is money, said Dave Dobbs, a Minnesota native and now a rail activist in Austin, TX, with Light Rail Now!
"The only thing that can seem to find consensus, in terms of priorities, is defense," he said. "Our whole culture is structured around the automobile. The automobile is a very seductive machine, but in a way it's a siren luring us to a world we can't sustain."
While Republicans are driving opposition, conservative centers such as Salt Lake City have undertaken massive projects to build up rail networks. In Dallas, the metropolitan area's rail network connects Republican strongholds, including a 13-mile extension through several conservative-leaning districts.
"It's not necessarily something I would label on one party or the other," Dobbs said of rail opposition.
Southwest supporters say the same is true for their project. "We've built so much support over the years that it's very bipartisan in nature," Dorfman said.
Working across municipal lines is just as important as working across party lines, and with years of momentum behind the initiative, cities along the Southwest project have been working together in ways they never have before, Elverum said. Also, the project has enough money on the table already to continue planning for a year and a half, which would nearly bring it into the funding discussions for the following biennium, Dorfman said.
The project is likely to receive federal approval in the next two to three months, a factor that will challenge continued opposition, Dorfman said. Such continued challenges wouldn't be unprecedented, though. The New Jersey tunnel had federal support before it was killed, and Southwest planners still have much work to do to ensure the area is primed for development when — and if — light rail comes through.
Despite the criticism, existing light rail remains strong in the Twin Cities. The Hiawatha Line draws more than 30,000 rides per weekday, alreay exceeding Metro Transit's goal of 24,800 daily riders by 2020, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit's director of customer service.
Light rail plans have prompted opposition St. Louis Park. Read the story on St. Louis Park Patch.