U.S. Sen. Al Franken visited the proposed future light rail stop in Hopkins Sunday morning to warn that nearly $900 million in federal funding for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line will be lost if state legislators don’t fund the state’s smaller share this year.

Standing in front of a green Metro Transit bus that says “get on board” with the Southwest line, Franken advocated for the project, saying it would propel economic development and job creation in communities along the line.

“If the state legislature doesn’t act this session, that $895 million would go to New York or California or Washington state, the Seattle area,” Franken said. “As a senator from the state of Minnesota, I want to see those resources come here — that money come here to Minnesota.”

Franken was joined by Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck, Hopkins Mayor Molly Cummins, and Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO John Stanoch at a Park and Ride near 10299 Excelsior Blvd. located across the street from the planned Hopkins stop.

Half the funding for the $1.79 billion project — $895 million — will come from the federal government, according to Franken’s office. In order for the project to win $895 million in matching funds from the Federal Transit Administration, the Metropolitan Council must secure $135 million in state funds to see the project through. Already, $745 million has been committed from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, the Met Council and other local funding sources.

Without a state commitment, federal funds would be lost, and federal willingness to fund future Twin Cities projects could be jeopardized, Franken said Sunday.

“Projects like this Southwest light-rail are exactly the type of investments we need to be making right now,” Franken said. “We want to be the greatest metropolitan area in the country, and the way you do that is to attract workforce … and one of the top things that young people care about when deciding to locate is transit. And that’s the reality.”

Staunch opponents

Opposition to the rail line persists. A Minneapolis nonprofit group called the Lakes and Parks Alliance has sued the Met Council over the Southwest project, claiming it violates environmental laws. The case is pending in U.S. District Court, and an adverse ruling could further delay the project.

“I wonder if Sen. Franken realizes a lawsuit is pending,” said Mary Pattock, spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance. “What’s at stake is the chain of the lakes, which is the feature that most distinguishes the city and makes it a great place to live.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Sunday the project is “super expensive” and it “makes no sense” to fund the project during pending litigation.

“This would be a pretty foolish use of tax dollars,” Garofalo said.

Pattock added that the goal for the Southwest light-rail project is not transportation, but rather development.

“It’s not about providing transportation to the people who need it the most, but providing developers the opportunity to develop,” Pattock said

Meanwhile, in St. Paul, “the House’s position is that there will not be any money for the light rail project from the state,” said Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, vice chair of the Transportation Policy and Finance committee. The Southwest light rail and any transportation bill will have to be decided in conference committee, he said, and a date for that has not yet been set.

Project at risk

The Hopkins stop is one of several stops planned for the 14.5-mile line, which will also travel through Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis. The line is slated to begin service in 2020.

Cummins said Sunday the project is “really critical” for Hopkins as it could provide affordable transportation for many residents. Cummins added that light rail also would bring more people into the city to “experience the charm” of its downtown.

Met Council officials say they hope state lawmakers support a metro-area sales tax to fund Southwest and other transit projects, including the Blue Line (Bottineau) extension, which would link Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park beginning in 2021.

“It really is local units of government, local leaders saying, ‘Give us the same flexibility other counties have around the state to impose a tax to allow us to build out the system,’ ” Duininck said. “And I think that’s a real important part of this.”

Stanoch said transportation funding is an important priority for the chamber and local businesses.

He reiterated that if the legislature doesn’t act now, the entire project could be at risk.

“What that really causes is not just an interruption in terms of Southwest light-rail transit, but it prevents us from building that regional infrastructure that we very much need,” Stanoch said. “The $895 million that does not go to this community will go somewhere else. I don’t think it will be a good idea for this region to send a $895 million aid package to some other region we are competing with for jobs.”

 

Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora