U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has been in office just under three months, and she’s already received an earful from Minnesota legislators about the controversial $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail line. A new salvo in the transit saga was released this week.
On March 17, 84 Minnesota GOP legislators wrote Chao urging her to block $928 million in federal funding for the Southwest LRT project, which would connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. They argued that the line “would recklessly consume scarce transit resources.”
The head of the Federal Transit Administration responded April 7 to Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt explaining the LRT funding process and offering a primer on President Donald Trump’s transportation budget for fiscal 2018.
Trump supports funding only for projects that have received a key approval — called a “full funding grant agreement” — by Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.
The Star Tribune on Friday obtained a copy of a letter Matthew Welbes, executive director of the FTA, wrote to Daudt, with copies also sent to the 83 other legislators who asked to block the Southwest’s funds. Welbes wrote that the Met Council “would need to obtain all local funding commitments” to pay for construction of the 14.5-mile line.
In addition, he said a financial plan must be submitted to the FTA that demonstrates the council’s “ability to continue to operate, maintain, and rehabilitate the existing transit system.”
The regional planning body must also show the FTA that it has reached agreements with the three freight railroads that would share corridors with Southwest, Welbes wrote.
Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said Friday that Southwest’s application for federal funding will be submitted this summer. (The council has said previously that the grant was expected to be approved by December, after the Trump deadline.)
“The president’s proposed budget is just that — a proposal. It’s the starting point for the negotiations and deliberation Congress will go through before it passes its final budget,” Duininck said. “Support for transit is bipartisan everywhere outside of Minnesota, and particularly in [Washington] D.C.”
Gov. Mark Dayton wrote his own letter to Chao on April 10, supporting the project and rebutting the arguments of Republican lawmakers. “Southwest LRT has broad support among community members; local, state and federal officials; and the business community,” Dayton said.
On Friday, a spokesman said Dayton has not yet received a response from Chao.
Meanwhile, work continues on the Southwest project — as of Dec. 31, 2016, about $159 million had been spent on the project.
The Met Council pushed back the date for construction contract bids by a month to May 23, saying prospective builders needed more time to assemble their bids. Construction is scheduled to begin this year, with passenger service starting in 2021 — assuming funding issues are worked out.
A council spokeswoman said construction contracts can be awarded even if federal funding is not nailed down.
A lawsuit filed by local residents that seeks to block the project is also pending in federal court.