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Southwest LRT funders balk at cities' wish lists

  • Article by: Pat Doyle
  • Star Tribune
  • June 18, 2014 - 9:47 PM

Bankrollers of the future Southwest Corridor light rail balked Wednesday at paying for extras at the request of cities along the route being asked to approve the project.

“They’re just digging deeper and deeper into our coffers,” said Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte, a member of a transit board that helps fund Twin Cities area projects with sales taxes.

The concern was triggered in part by a recent decision by Eden Prairie to draft a resolution that approves plans for the area’s most expensive transit project but asks the Met Council to consider spending any surplus funds from the project on a better station design, a trail and other items.

Five cities are being asked to give their consent to the $1.68 billion Southwest line linking downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie. Hopkins became the first to consent Tuesday.

While the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, says state law doesn’t allow cities to demand extras in exchange for approval, some officials on the transit board think a similar arrangement could happen informally.

“Although they can’t make it a condition, it’s wink and a nod and ‘We’ll take care of you,’ ” said Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, another member of the transit board.

Limits should be put on how much of any surplus goes for satisfying special requests by cities instead of needed expenses for building, board members said.

They are members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is expected to use a quarter-cent sales tax in metro counties to pay for 30 percent of the Southwest project. The state and Hennepin County each are expected to pay 10 percent, with the federal government covering the remaining half.

Millions set aside

The project’s $1.68 billion cost assumes a federal requirement for hundreds of millions of dollars in contingencies, some of which may not be needed for essential items or cost overruns and could be used later to pay for extras.

“We’ve made it very clear that those requests, those wants, cannot be a condition of municipal consent,” Mark Fuhrmann, in charge of Met Council light-rail development, told the transit board. “They can be made known to the Met Council, but separate from a demand or condition of their approval.”

He said a panel of southwest metro government leaders, the transit board and the Met Council would need to weigh the requests and select some if there is enough contingency money available.

But officials from Dakota, Ramsey and Anoka counties expressed concerns about use of contingency funds from the transit board to pay for the extras.

Look said in an interview that he’s concerned that contingency money could become a bargaining chip to win a city’s approval rather than be reserved for unexpected but essential expenses.

“Now you’ve got a lot of extra money to be playing with,” Look said of the contingency funds. “If these communities want some extras, pay for it yourself. But I think the feeling is, ‘Let’s just get this through, no waves.’ ”

Watching Minneapolis

He cited Minneapolis, which rejected light-rail plans but is now negotiating behind closed doors with the Met Council over municipal consent. Some city officials, including Mayor Betsy Hodges, have previously expressed an interest in streetcars.

“At what point do we see a $200 million streetcar to get municipal consent?” Look asked.

“Minneapolis is not holding out on Southwest LRT to force the Met Council to build a streetcar,” Hodges said last week.

The Met Council and city haven’t commented on details of the negotiations, mediated by a retired federal judge. “They are productive discussions, and we continue to move the ball forward,” Fuhrmann said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said cities are more emboldened to make demands because of resistance by Minneapolis to grant consent and instead negotiate changes.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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