Prospects are dimming this year for the $1.65 billion Southwest light-rail line as stronger opposition at the State Capitol is added to a lawsuit by residents opposed to the line and other potential delays.

Although Gov. Mark Dayton still favors the line, even he is wondering if there’s enough support to push through the most expensive transportation project in state history.

The Southwest project is “so bogged down now that I don’t know whether it’s going to be viable or not,” Dayton said, according to the transcript of a recent interview provided by the governor’s office. “I think the people who want to clog up the process have in mind to have this fall apart, and they may get their way.”

The 16-mile line is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, with stops in St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. But its path through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth corridor, a strip of land between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, has prompted a federal lawsuit by a local group seeking to block the project. And the Minneapolis Park Board also is raising new concerns about the project.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Wednesday authorized $248,275 in additional engineering studies to determine the prudence of building a tunnel under the Kenilworth channel between the two lakes, where an engineering firm already advised that two tunneling methods are feasible. The Metropolitan Council’s plan bridges the channels.

The Park Board’s lawyers have advised that parkland may not be claimed for the project under federal transportation law if there’s a feasible alternative. The board voted 5-2 to seek a meeting with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to ask it to force the Metropolitan Council to study alternatives.

Republicans have gained control of the Minnesota House, a shift that could spell trouble for a big metro-area transit project like Southwest.

“Rail has always been a four-letter word with Republicans,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, a DFL lawmaker from Minneapolis who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “We always anticipated a struggle, but it’s important to proceed.”

Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican from Red Wing who chairs the House Transportation Committee, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The project is expected to receive FTA approval in 2015, with service beginning in 2019, according to the Met Council.

State share: $165 million

The state is on the hook to fund $165 million, or 10 percent, of the Southwest project — $44 million of which already has been committed. How the remaining $121 million in state funds will be raised by the Legislature remains unclear. Dayton has said he supports a half-cent sales tax increase for the seven-county metro area for transit projects.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) has approved its full commitment of $496 million (or 30 percent) for the project, and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority has contributed an additional $165 million (10 percent). The remaining 10 percent from local sources was expected to come from the state in order to qualify for $827 million in federal matching funds.

But FTA officials say the final 10 percent could come from other local sources instead. Competition for the federal transit money is fierce — similar light-rail projects are in the works across the country, including in North Carolina, Maryland and Colorado.

Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner who heads the CTIB board, said Wednesday there are “alternative ways” to raise local money in lieu of state funding, but he declined to elaborate.

The Legislature should press ahead with a comprehensive transportation funding package that includes money for transit, McLaughlin said. He noted that “dithering” by opponents and the Park Board will only raise Southwest’s price tag.

According to the transcript of Dayton’s interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Dayton said he’s “reluctant to put in money before we have a secure project. … Unless the people who want better public transit get behind this project and really insist that this project be speeded up and carried out, we’ll go back to what we have now, and add bus lanes or whatever else.”

Opponents pleased

The governor’s comments buoyed critics of the Southwest project.

“The [Metropolitan] Council is plunging ahead without the environmental impact statement required by both state and federal law — a violation we believe is unprecedented in our state,” said Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, the group that filed suit in U.S. District Court.

“People are upset about other issues, too, like cost, safety, and the striking fact that Southwest LRT doesn’t meet the needs of people who actually need transportation,” Pattock noted, adding the line “wasn’t really designed as a transportation project in the first place but as a way to grease the skids for developers.”

The lawsuit was filed against the FTA and the Met Council, which is overseeing the Southwest light-rail project. A hearing on a motion to dismiss the suit by both entities is scheduled for Feb. 25 before Judge John Tunheim.

In a letter to Park Board Chair Liz Wielinski, outgoing Met Council head Susan Haigh reacted with “great dismay and frustration.”

Attempts by the board to delay the project “are not only frustrating, but if successful will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,” Haigh wrote.

 

Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report.