Taxpayers in the Twin Cities area would be on the hook for an additional $145 million to salvage the Southwest Light Rail Transit project from State Capitol gridlock, under a newly unveiled plan that Gov. Mark Dayton endorsed Thursday.
Dayton led a three-hour public meeting Thursday about the future of the beleaguered Southwest line, a proposed light-rail link between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. Supporters touted its benefits and critics questioned its cost and effectiveness as a deadline approaches to secure needed federal funding for the $1.9 billion venture.
“We’re at the point where we need action or we’re in trouble,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a key player in the push for the project.
The fate of SWLRT, the next spoke of an envisioned metrowide transit system, has been in question since Dayton, his Senate DFL allies and the House Republican majority failed to agree on a much larger package of tax cuts, transportation and infrastructure improvements. GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt in particular has harshly criticized the project, and its funding is poised to be a campaign issue in legislative elections around the state this fall.
Daudt did not attend Dayton’s meeting Thursday, though he was invited, and declined a request to be interviewed for this story. In his absence, GOP Rep. Tony Albright of Shakopee said Dayton and the project’s advocates should not raid county and Metropolitan Council funds in order to raise the money needed for the state share.
“I think we are witnessing an end run around the legislative process,” Albright said. He noted that Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck, a Dayton appointee, had assured Republican lawmakers earlier this year that the council would not pursue what’s now underway.
Asked about Duininck’s previous assurances, Dayton said: “I overruled him.” Inaction by the Legislature left no further alternatives, the DFL governor said.
“Four other options were presented to the Legislature. None were enacted,” Dayton said. “This was the fifth choice.”
Without the money, Met Council officials said, $928.5 million in federal funds are at risk. The project would run out of cash on Sept. 30, meaning the Met Council would have to issue layoff notices to 45 employees after Aug. 31. The major engineering contractor is also poised to permanently reassign staff to other projects, the Met Council said.
“We can’t squander the chance to bring these kinds of federal resources into our region,” McLaughlin said.
Under the new proposal, which Dayton said his administration and Met Council staff devised just a day earlier, three entities would raise the $145 million state match: the Met Council would contribute $92 million, Hennepin County would contribute $21 million and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) would kick in $32 million. CTIB is a taxing district comprised of Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties that raises transit funds through a motor vehicle sales tax, although Dakota County recently announced it was exiting the group.
The Met Council, Hennepin County Board and CTIB would all have to vote separately to approve the money shift. Duininck said it must happen quickly in order to keep the project going. He and Dayton stressed that the Legislature could revisit the issue when it reconvenes in January, if lawmakers want to come up with a different funding scenario.
Much of the public meeting, which Dayton’s administration announced just a day earlier, was given over to praise for the Southwest line and transit expansion in general from government officials along the proposed route, business groups, environmentalists, proponents of racial equity and others.
“We’ve worked on this for five years, and we’ve come to the strong conclusion that it’s the best way for our city, the state and the region to meet the needs of the future,” said Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider, whose city the train would go through. To waste the opportunity now, to squander it for internal bickering, would be a huge disservice to citizens of our state and region.”
Critics of the project had their say, too.
“You all have the responsibility to spend taxpayer money wisely, and this project is just too expensive,” said Stephen Bullard of Minneapolis. “There’s other options that will not cost nearly as much. It’s time to take a look at this whole thing and start back over again. This is a huge waste of money — huge.”
Mary Pattock is a board member at the Lakes and Parks Alliance, a neighborhood group that is trying via lawsuit to block the route from traveling through the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis. She noted the lawsuit is still pending, with a tentative trial date of September 2017.
“What if between now and then the Met Council continues to pour time and money into SWLRT and then loses in court?” Pattock said. “Millions of dollars will have been wasted, and the project will have been set back two years and possibly more.”