A fruitful conclusion to the 2016 legislative session is not yet in sight. But the path to one is becoming clear: The fate of four major bills — bonding, budget, taxes and transportation — hinges on achieving a bipartisan accord on transportation. And a transportation deal can’t be reached without an agreement to fund Metro Transit, including the Southwest light-rail line.
That’s not just the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s view. It’s an assessment of political reality that’s widely shared at the State Capitol. It’s also the urging of the CEOs of a dozen leading corporations, who on these pages last Saturday pleaded for the continued build-out of the metro area’s long-planned network of bus and rail rapid transit service.
The Southwest line (also called the Green Line Extension) is the crucial next step in that network’s construction. Fail this year to provide the $135 million remainder of a state/local match the project requires, and the region’s ability to complete the entire network will be in jeopardy. Minnesota could lose not only $895 million in federal funds for the Southwest line, but also the opportunity to secure federal money for future rapid transit projects.
That realization may finally be taking hold at the Capitol. Stiff opposition within the House Republican majority has softened in recent days amid suggestions that changes in the composition or structure of the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, might help produce an agreement to let metro counties impose a transit-dedicated sales tax. (We favor a Citizens League plan for a switch to staggered terms and a more transparent appointment process for Met Council members.)
A sweetener is likely needed to get Republicans who have long resisted rail transit to swallow the Southwest line. But it shouldn’t take much. The case for the continued build-out of metro rapid transit is strong.
Better transit service isn’t a nicety. It’s a necessity for competitiveness and quality of life in a region that is already seeing a worker shortage and choking on rush-hour highway congestion. Rapid transit will help attract more young talent, make the most of the existing workforce, and help seniors and the disabled stay independent and productive.
That’s a clear benefit to the 180,000 people who already work and 55,000 who live within a half-mile of the Southwest line (including its downtown Minneapolis stops). But it’s also a benefit to, say, the Twins fans from Mankato who want to drive to Eden Prairie and take the train to Target Field. Or the air traveler who would rather not risk a traffic jam or parking hassles at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Or the 7,500 construction workers who will help build the new line — as did workers from 61 of Minnesota’s 87 counties when the initial Green Line was built.
The state is being asked to supply $1 for every $9 already promised by federal or local sources for Southwest light rail — and it can slough off that responsibility to willing metro counties via an optional sales tax. That’s a deal that ought to sell itself. But legislators must realize that it’s a limited-time offer.