Local bankrollers of metro transit projects agreed Wednesday to give Minneapolis until the end of August to vote on the latest Southwest Corridor light-rail plan, over the objections of suburban officials who don’t trust the city and want to trim the cost of the $1.6 billion venture.
“I think Minneapolis has been playing games all along,” Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte told other members of a Twin Cities area panel that funds transit projects, expressing fear that the city would exploit the deadline to win a better agreement.
But Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, another member, expressed confidence that the Minneapolis City Council would approve a deal brokered by council leaders and Mayor Betsy Hodges with the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project.
The deal would run the light rail at ground level and in a tunnel next to freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor, restore a city station scrapped in previous plans and make $30 million available to improve access to other city stations.
The transit panel had insisted on a July 14 deadline to approve a Southwest plan, but the deal wasn’t announced until July 8 and the city hasn’t had time to hold required public hearings on it.
The panel voted 8-3 Wednesday to extend its deadline to Aug. 30, the day after the City Council is expected to vote. Refusal to extend the deadline would have been a vote of no-confidence by the panel in the Southwest project.
The vote followed a debate that illustrated the ongoing rift between the transit funders over the cost of the Southwest line, the region’s most expensive light-rail project, running nearly 16 miles from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis.
Although the tentative deal with the city pared the cost by $30 million, some suburban officials on the panel sought unsuccessfully Wednesday to cut $80 million more.
Nancy Schouweiler, a Dakota County commissioner, proposed extending the deadline for Minneapolis to vote if $80 million were cut from the project by eliminating Mitchell Station and tracks to it in Eden Prairie or by other cost savings. Mitchell was strongly supported by Gov. Mark Dayton. The idea of cutting $80 million didn’t advance.
Schouweiler and Schulte were joined by Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look in voting against extending the deadline for Minneapolis.
The transit panel, called the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), represents Dakota, Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties in spending a portion of metro sales tax revenue on transit developments. Those funds are expected to pay for 30 percent of the Southwest light-rail project, with Hennepin County and the state each kicking in another 10 percent and the federal government picking up the remaining half.
Met Council transit planners said extending the deadline to allow Minneapolis time to approve the plans would help convince the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to keep the Southwest project on the list for the next round of funding rather than delay it for perhaps another year. The federal agency considers local support when ranking transit projects.
‘Strongest foot forward’
Mark Fuhrmann, in charge of light-rail development for the Met Council, said it needed to update the FTA on local support by Sept. 10.
“We need to put our strongest foot forward” in seeking federal funding, he said.
The four other communities along the route — St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Eden Prairie — have given their approval.
Minneapolis long opposed running the light-rail line next to freight trains in the Kenilworth corridor before tentatively agreeing to the deal. Some of the suburban members of CTIB questioned what would happen if the deal fell apart before the project needed to go to the FTA.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of time to implement Plan B,” Look said.
Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh noted the deal was negotiated by two Minneapolis City Council leaders as well as a policy aide to Mayor Hodges, remarking, “I take that to be a positive sign.”
McLaughlin said, “My read of the City Council is they’re going to approve this,” but added if the city rejects the deal, “We’ve got a serious problem.”