Supporters of the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines were relieved to see transit funding included in the $1.3 trillion spending plan approved by federal lawmakers this week — after President Donald Trump initially proposed deep cuts to public transportation projects across the country.
The light-rail projects linking downtown Minneapolis to the southwestern and northern suburbs will eventually apply for $1.7 billion in grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Without the federal money, it’s unlikely either line will be built.
“This is what we were hoping and thinking would happen, and now it has happened,” said Hennepin County Commissioner and transit advocate Peter McLaughlin. “We are very encouraged.”
While the Metropolitan Council has not formally applied for the grants, the regional planning body is expected to request $929 million for Southwest and $753 million for Bottineau in the next year or so. Congress approved $2.6 billion for the FTA’s capital investment grants program, an increase of $232 million over last year.
Trump had originally indicated that he would not approve funding for any new transit projects, but reversed course on Friday, signing the overall budget bill.
The lack of certainty regarding critical federal funding has been a flash point for critics of light rail, who say the Met Council is spending local money on the projects without any guarantee that FTA matching funds are forthcoming. As of the end of January, $246 million has been spent on Southwest, and $108 million on Bottineau, according to the council.
McLaughlin said the recent dismissal of a federal lawsuit challenging the Southwest project, as well as approval of agreements outlining how freight and LRT trains will operate side-by-side along the line, are proof that “the pieces are falling into place.”
But opponents of light rail remain determined.
A bill introduced this week at the Legislature would prohibit freight and LRT trains from sharing a rail corridor. The measure, at the very least, would prompt a rerouting of both the Southwest and Bottineau lines — or it could kill the projects altogether.
The 14.5-mile Southwest line, slated to connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, would share 7.7 miles of right of way with freight trains. Bottineau would run alongside freight trains for eight miles of its 13-mile route from Brooklyn Park to downtown Minneapolis.
The lead author of the bill, Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, said he’s concerned about the safety of light-rail trains running near freight cars carrying highly flammable cargo such as ethanol and crude oil.
“It’s kind of like you shouldn’t smoke when you’re filling your gas tank,” he said.
But Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman said in a statement, “Many LRT systems in the U.S. operate in shared corridors with freight rail including Dallas, New Jersey, Denver, [Los Angeles], Sacramento, St. Louis, Charlotte, Portland, and San Jose. Southwest LRT has been designed with technical input from freight railroads to safely accommodate shared use.”