Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature said Monday that they want to take the $929 million in federal funding expected for the Southwest light-rail transit line and instead use it for roads, bridges and other transportation projects.
A resolution introduced Monday seeks lawmakers' approval to ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to redirect its contribution away from the 14-mile line planned to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
The Legislature has been divided on the issue and did not pass a light-rail funding bill in the last session. The Metropolitan Council then came up with different plan, lining up $145 million in local contributions for the $1.9 billion project.
With that money secured, the state had enough to earn the federal matching funds.
But Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, the author of the resolution in the Senate, said he and others in the Republican-controlled Legislature remain opposed to the light-rail expansion and feel they've been sidelined in the process. He said the money should be spent on work that benefits more Minnesotans from around the state — and that even losing the federal money altogether would be better than spending it on the Southwest light rail.
"We are trying to come to the federal government and say: 'Listen, this is not supported, this is fundamentally not workable,' " he said.
"We'll make our transportation decisions and guess what, our decisions are going to be a whole lot better than the Washington, D.C., decisions."
If approved, the resolution would be sent to federal transportation officials as a formal request. Osmek said he is already planning to meet with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to relay his concern that the project has been primarily driven by the appointed Metropolitan Council rather than elected state lawmakers.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck, meanwhile, said Osmek's worries were unfounded. In a statement, he noted that the project has been through an "exhaustive" public process, securing the approval of the five cities along the line, plus Hennepin County, and had the support of business and labor groups.
"The project received state funding in the amount of $37 million from 2009, 2011 and 2013, as well as significant local funding from Hennepin County, Counties Transit Improvement Board and the cities along the corridor," he said.
But Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said Republicans who had run into roadblocks with a DFL-controlled Legislature now see an opening to stop the project.
"We've been working on the Southwest light rail issue for a number of years," she said. "This is the first opportunity we've had, given that the Senate and the House are in the same majority, by the Republicans, to actually be able to do something about it."
Speaking with the lawmakers at a news conference, Mary Pattock of the group LRT Done Right said people in her organization concerned with the potential environmental effects of the line support the bill because it reflects opposition to the project. The expansion would run through Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes.
It isn't clear whether federal officials would consider using the funds for projects unrelated to the light-rail line. Osmek said he intended to express the state's interest in being a place to try such an approach.