The Southwest light-rail line was allocated $10 million in the temporary federal budget being considered by lawmakers in Washington — news that the Metropolitan Council says is a sign the project will win its full $928 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) later this year.
The fate of the $1.9 billion line, which would connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, had been unclear since President Donald Trump's initial transportation budget proposal did not fund new mass transit projects in the fiscal year. Without the federal money, it was unlikely that Southwest could move forward.
But the $1.1 trillion budget deal struck by Washington lawmakers Sunday indicates that Southwest is one of four transit projects in the works that are expected to get "full funding grant agreement awards in 2017," the council said. The other three projects are in Maryland, California and Washington state, according to an FTA document.
The budget deal is expected to be voted on later this week.
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said in a statement Monday, "This is encouraging news. The inclusion of [Southwest] in the proposed budget is an indication that the federal delegation understands this project is a key piece of our region's transportation infrastructure. This type of federal backing does not occur without broad support from the local community and a strong case for a successful project."
For Southwest to qualify for federal funds, it must first secure half of the capital costs from local sources, in this case Hennepin County, the state, and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which levies a local sales tax for transit.
The Met Council may be part of that funding picture, if it resorts to issuing $103.5 million in certificates of participation, a financial tool occasionally used by public bodies for big projects.
In addition, the FTA is requiring that the council reach agreements with three railroad companies to share part of the route with Southwest trains along the 14.5-mile line — BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co.
Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature have gone on the offensive against light rail. In March, 84 state GOP legislators wrote to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to block federal funding for Southwest. Gov. Mark Dayton and several chambers of commerce in the metro countered the missive with letters of support for Southwest.
The project also faces a lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed by a Minneapolis nonprofit group called the Lakes and Parks Alliance (LPA), which claims the Met Council violated federal law by committing Southwest to its current route before completing an environmental review.
The route snakes through the Kenilworth corridor near Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes, an area popular with bicyclists and pedestrians. The current plan calls for the Southwest line to share the corridor with Twin Cities & Western freight trains.
In a brief filed Friday in federal court, the LPA says it has uncovered "a multitude of e-mails, letters, and other documents clearly demonstrating" that the Met Council reached a decision about Southwest's route long before environmental studies were completed.
As a result, the brief claims only the current route was seriously considered.
These studies required by the FTA are "intended to ensure that environmental review does not become a meaningless formality or a subterfuge designed to rationalize a decision already made," the LPA brief states. It says that the Met Council ignored federal law and barreled along because it feared "falling out of the federal funding queue."
The LPA has asked the court to declare Southwest's environmental study null and void, and to prohibit the Met Council from continuing with the project until a new environmental review is done.
If Southwest is built, construction would begin this summer, with passenger service expected to start in 2021.
The Met Council says the line will connect transit riders to over 64,000 jobs and create about 7,500 construction jobs with a payroll of more than $350 million.