To get to her job at a spa in Eden Prairie’s bustling commercial district, massage therapist LesleyAnne Crosby usually took three Metro Transit buses from her south Minneapolis home. The commute took about two hours — one way.
A serious ankle injury prevented her from driving like everyone else. After six months, the chaotic commute proved too much, and she quit her job. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
As prospective rail commuters and civic leaders wait in hope for a light-rail line to link southwestern suburbs with downtown Minneapolis, policymakers are furiously crunching the numbers to arrive at a price that will ensure the embattled Southwest line stays alive. The current $2 billion cost has to come down by at least $341 million to keep even supporters like Gov. Mark Dayton on board, let alone rail-resistant Republican legislators.
On Wednesday, a final recommendation on cuts will be made by a Metropolitan Council advisory committee: Will it include stations in Eden Prairie? Minneapolis? Both? A final Met Council vote is scheduled for July 8.
Even with that hurdle cleared, the line’s future is far from assured, as state funding remains elusive, opposition galvanizes and public officials wrestle to extract the best deals for their part of the 16-mile line.
End of the line
The Southwest Corridor Management Committee, an advisory group of policymakers, appears to be leaning toward cuts that will hit Eden Prairie the hardest. One idea involves eliminating the Mitchell Station stop now at the end of the line, where some 5,100 people work — a figure expected to double by 2030.
Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens supports ending the line at Southwest Station, already a big bus hub. But it’s unclear whether that option, which involves postponing the Penn Avenue Station in Minneapolis, would achieve the cuts needed to pare the budget.
Marcus Desmarais of Chanhassen said light rail “would be so much more convenient.” He often takes the SouthWest Transit bus to Minneapolis to visit friends in Dinkytown, but finds the schedules pretty limited.
Metro Transit predicts that the trip between Mitchell Road and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis would take 38 minutes, while a SouthWest Transit express bus from Eden Prairie to downtown takes about a half-hour.
“Most express commuters to downtown will stick to the bus system, because it’s a much quicker trip on the bus than light rail,” said Tyra-Lukens. “But the people who work along the [rail] corridor at offices in Hopkins or Methodist Hospital or places like that — our buses currently don’t take people there.”
Another station that could be postponed is located at Eden Prairie Town Center, a short walk to the enclosed shopping mall off Flying Cloud Drive, as well as a seemingly endless stretch of chain restaurants and shops along the strip.
That decision would disappoint Michele Brink, owner of the Funkytown Boutique in Eden Prairie Center mall. “The traffic out here is really bad for people, so I like the idea of a train,” she said. “I think it could bring a lot of business out here.” Light rail would have saved Crosby about an hour each way on her commute, but it wasn’t meant to be. “It definitely would have been more efficient,” she said. “If they cut funding, people won’t be able to get to their jobs.”
Assuming the Met Council pares the budget to the desired $1.65 billion, another looming challenge for Southwest officials involves securing funds from the Legislature at a time when many Republicans are cool toward transit.
As currently planned, half of the Southwest line (or $827 million) would be funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), with 30 percent ($496 million) coming from a regional transit board and the remaining 20 percent split between the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and the state.
In order to qualify for the federal money, the Met Council must prove it has funding commitments from state and local sources that are “firm and final,” according to the FTA.
The Southwest project now has more than 75 percent of the local match needed for the project, but the $165 million portion from the state is still very much up in the air. And, the Met Council must update the FTA on the project’s status by Aug. 3 in order to qualify for inclusion in President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget.
No one appears to be panicking. “We’ll have it all covered,” said Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County Commissioner who also chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the regional body covering a third of the project’s cost. “I think we can get there.”
Southwest supporters had hoped to get a metro-area sales tax increase approved this legislative session to raise money for the line, part of a broader transportation plan. But a gas tax increase pitched by Gov. Dayton and the Democratic-controlled Senate to fix roads and bridges seemed to dominate discussion at the Capitol. By the end of the contentious session, no new funding emerged for the Southwest project.
Once Southwest’s budget crisis surfaced in April, state lawmakers canceled about $30 million of the line’s existing funds, which included a $37 million appropriation from the 2013 state budget.
“The consensus was that we should push pause on this and give folks time to work things out,” before allocating any new money to the project, said Rep. Tim Kelly, a Red Wing Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The Southwest project faced a cash-flow issue as a result, so the Met Council decided last week to transfer $13 million from its motor-vehicle sales tax reserve fund to cover short-term expenses.
Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said he hopes to convince legislators next year to support the Southwest project. “I’m less optimistic today than I was when I first started the job [in January],” he said. “The tone of this session was unfortunate about transit.”
Whether state funding will be in place for the Southwest line in 2016 “is the $20,000 question,” Kelly said. Because the project’s budget increased from $1.2 billion originally to $2 billion, and with several lawsuits questioning the line’s route and environmental impact, funding prospects are “clouded. It gets tough for the Legislature as a whole to come together to put their stamp of approval on it,” he added.
Longer term, the Met Council is investigating a contingency plan involving the use “certificates of participation” to pay the state’s share for the Southwest line, should legislative dollars dry up next year. Anticipated revenue, such as the motor-vehicle sales tax, could be used to pay down the debt.
Certificates of this kind have been used to pay for the controversial $90 million Senate office building in St. Paul, and by other cities, such as Denver, for the purchase of buses and light-rail vehicles.
Kelly is skeptical of this possible funding fix. In a letter to Duininck last week, he questioned whether the Met Council has the authority to use the certificates. A Met Council spokesman said no decision has been made regarding a fallback funding plan.
Duininck said there are “some real big deadlines on the horizon next year [including Southwest light rail] that will hopefully prompt some urgency about whether we’re really committed to these transit projects or not.”
Next year, he noted, “is the big moment of truth for us.”