Latest light rail plan puts Blue Line in the heart of north Minneapolis

Transit officials have released their preferred route for the Blue Line extension from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, even as they scramble to come up with another $ 500 million to complete the beleaguered Southwest Corridor light rail project.

The proposed 13-mile route of the Blue Line Extension follows Lyndale and West Broadway Avenues into north Minneapolis. It stops at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale, and continues along Bottineau Boulevard into Crystal before rejoining West Broadway. Planners put the last of the 11 stations on Oak Grove Parkway near Highways 610 and 169, steps from Target’s suburban office campus.

Nick Landwer, the Blue Line extension’s director of engineering and design, said they considered several routes through north Minneapolis before settling on West Broadway.

“We evaluated it to our project goals and principles and it really fits well being a main thoroughfare in north Minneapolis where we have the destinations that we can connect to,” Landwer said.

The Metropolitan Council hasn’t worked out a new budget yet. A 2018 estimate put the cost at $ 1.5 billion. The agency has already spent at least $ 129 million on planning. But that was for a route shared with a BNSF Railway freight corridor. The Met Council had to go back to the drawing board in 2020 after it could not reach an agreement with BNSF on sharing eight miles of its right-of-way.

That early draft would have largely bypassed north Minneapolis. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde said the new plan is much better. For one thing, he said the county already owns the right-of-way, and there would be no need for a pricey crash wall between freight and LRT tracks – a factor in the cost overruns on the Southwest corridor project. And Lunde, a former Brooklyn Park mayor, said this latest proposal would serve more people who rely on public transit.

“We’ve called this line the equity line,” Lunde said. “It goes right down the center of the most diverse area of ​​the metro, diverse area of ​​the state. Two years ago after the murder of George Floyd, we were having conversations about disparities and inequalities. It’s time to step in. Here’s something tangible that we can do that will directly affect people who don’t have access to reliable transportation. ”

Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison welcomes investment in his north side ward. At the same time, Ellison said planners need to ensure that any private development along the road doesn’t price residents out of their homes.

“For me, the real challenge is going to be proving that we can have our cake and eat it too, so to speak,” Ellison said. “Which is, we can invest in our community and really work hard to make sure that the community benefits from those investments and isn’t displaced by them.”

Ellison said such an effort could include subsidies for affordable housing and programs to promote home ownership. The Met Council and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs set up an anti-displacement work group that includes 26 residents and business owners along the route.

Planning for the Blue Line extension has been underway for more than a decade, but the project remains in its very early stages. The Met Council’s key priority at the moment is completing the Green Line extension to Eden Prairie.

Major engineering challenges have put the Green Line extension project three years behind schedule and about $ 750 million over budget. Criticism at the Minnesota Capitol has prompted the Legislative Auditor’s office to examine the cost overruns.

And it may lessen the appetite among lawmakers for another light rail project. State Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, sits on the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. Koznick said he and many of his fellow Republicans support public transit along the Bottineau corridor, just not light rail.

“We’ve argued all along that we can do a variety of regular bus route service, express bus service, and bus rapid transit along this route to serve these communities for probably half or 60 percent of the cost of what they’re proposing here. Koznick said.

Federal matching funds are essential for major transit projects, but the Blue Line extension does not yet have that money. If finance and engineering plans fall into place, the Met Council’s Nick Landwer said the earliest that construction could begin is 2025, and passenger service in 2028.

MPR News’ Tim Nelson contributed reporting for this story.

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