The controversial Southwest light-rail line has one more shot at funding from the Minnesota Legislature this year, this time under a stark deadline that could put the whole $1.79 billion project in jeopardy.
“It’s a real moment of truth,” said Adam Duininck, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, builder of the transit line.
The Met Council must coax $135 million from lawmakers during the short legislative session this spring to qualify for federal matching funds of $895 million. Without that state match, the 14.5-mile line linking downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie could be imperiled — after about $118.5 million in local money already has been spent on it.
Duininck and other transit advocates are optimistic a deal can be reached, and soon. So far, however, the Southwest project was not included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding proposal, or in his blueprint for spending the state’s $900 million surplus. Instead, Dayton is advocating for a broader transportation bill that has a sustainable funding source to keep up the state’s roads, bridges — and transit systems.
Duininck wants the conversation about funding transit to “evolve,” and hopes legislators support a metro-area sales tax to fund Southwest — and other projects in the years to come. “We want to emphasize transit as a system,” he said.
Both Dayton and the Democratic-controlled Senate have proposed such a tax — a half-cent and three-quarters of a cent on each dollar spent, respectively. It’s still unclear whether such a tax will be part of a broader transportation bill that would dedicate money to repair the state’s aging roads and bridges.
“If there’s a transportation bill, transit will be a part of it,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who heads the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
Yet there’s no real consensus on how to pay for the road and bridges component, especially since a gas tax proposed by Dayton last session fell flat. And strong opposition to funding mass transit remains, particularly among some Republicans.
“The priorities of the metro area for transit are fairly controversial and do not have broad support in greater Minnesota,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, at a Wednesday event sponsored by the Transportation Alliance. “We shouldn’t hold up money for roads and bridges for the train.”
There does appear to be a bit of a thaw among some lawmakers who were previously cool to transit funding, including Rep. Tim Kelly, the Red Wing Republican who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.
“I think we ran out of time last year,” Kelly said Wednesday. “I think now we can talk about transit” as part of a bigger transportation plan.
“The fact that Representative Kelly is talking transit is very positive,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, also on the House Transportation Committee. The two were serving on a panel at the Transportation Alliance event, which turned out to be a rather cordial (for the most part) affair.
Opposition is lobbying
Meanwhile, Southwest’s metro-area opponents have been lobbying legislators to block any further funding for the line. “Our focus when we talk to people is that it is premature to fund Southwest LRT right now,” said Mary Pattock, spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance.
The Minneapolis group is deeply opposed to Southwest’s route, which snakes through the Kenilworth corridor, a popular biking and pedestrian area. The Alliance sued the Met Council in federal court, claiming it violated environmental laws. That case is pending. The litigation alone could further delay the project.
“We don’t get into what sort of funding mechanisms should be used for transit,” Pattock said. “That’s the Legislature’s job. It’s not our job to figure out where the heck it should go, too. We know it doesn’t belong here.” She said the response to the group’s message from legislators has been positive.
Several local chambers of commerce are supportive of metro-area transit — business groups that tend to make up the Republican base.
When asked about the Southwest line, Jim Pumarlo, spokesman for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the group does “not weigh in on specific transportation projects. We support robust funding for a statewide network of roads, bridges and transit.”
Feds ‘won’t wait forever’
Southwest’s impending deadline is with the Federal Transit Administration, which would provide half of its total cost. A commitment for the local portion must be in place by 2017 when the Met Council applies for its full funding agreement from the FTA.
Otherwise, the FTA will not sign a construction grant agreement, and that money could go to another project elsewhere across the country in the highly competitive federal program.
“The feds are great partners, but they’re not going to wait around forever for us to figure out the local funding,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who also chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is paying for 30 percent of the Southwest project using a separate quarter-cent transit metro sales tax.