White House Expedites Review Process for SW Corridor

The White House has decided to fast-track the federal permitting and environmental review process for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line.

The Obama administration said Monday that it will expedite the permitting and other environmental review processes for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line.

The Southwest Corridor—a $1.25 billion proposed transit line that would run between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie—is one of two projects that were selected as part of the administration’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative. The other selected project is the University Circle–Little Italy Rapid Station in Cleveland, which calls for the construction of a new a rail transit station and the relocation of an existing station.

Permitting and environmental review processes for the two projects will occur concurrently, rather than sequentially—a move that is “expected to shave several months off project schedules,” the White House said in a press release, which indicated that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration are the “coordinating agencies” for the project.

The proposed Southwest Corridor would include 15 miles of new track and 17 transit stations. It would connect near Target Field with the Hiawatha and Central Corridor light-rail routes, as well as the Northstar commuter rail line.

Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Sue Haigh said in a Monday statement that the White House’s announcement affirms that the Southwest Corridor is a “high-ranking and viable project.”

Haigh said that the construction of the transit line will generate more than 3,500 jobs, and the project will ultimately create 175 permanent jobs. She also said that the White House announcement is “especially timely” because the council expects to receive proposals on Tuesday regarding the project’s preliminary engineering, and the project’s draft environmental impact statement will be released October 12.

But the $1.25 billion Southwest Corridor project has encountered some obstacles. It was left out of the bonding bill that Governor Mark Dayton signed earlier this year, and the Metropolitan Council subsequently applied for a share of $47.5 million in unallocated state funds that were part of the bill and meant to support economic development projects.

The Southwest Corridor was one of 90 projects that applied for funding, and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) gave it poor marks when recommending how the money should be allocated.

The project ultimately received $2 million in state funding—a fraction of the $14 million that Metropolitan Council sought.

To date, the project has received $47 million in commitments from the state, the Counties Transit Improvement Board, and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, in addition to the $2 million grant from DEED, Metropolitan Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen said Monday.

But the state has thus far committed only $7 million of the $125 million share it has been allocated in the funding plan. Baenen said that the Metropolitan Council will continue to seek state funding for the project.

The funding plan calls for the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which leverages taxes from several Minnesota counties to invest in transit projects, to pay $375 million, or 30 percent, and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, a government entity established to implement light rail transit in Hennepin County, to pick up the remaining $125 million.

The funding plan calls for the federal government to provide matching funds to cover the remaining 50 percent, but the council must first complete the engineering and final design phases for the project. And according to a report by the Star Tribune, the federal government is expected to make a decision on its share of funding after much of the other financing is in place.