The fate of the Southwest light-rail line is in doubt after it failed to win $135 million in funding from the Legislature — and no one can say how the controversial line will move forward without that critical state support.
The state’s share of the $1.79 billion project, which would link Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, was supposed to be the final piece of local funding needed to win $895 million in federal matching dollars. But partisan infighting at the Capitol this session skewered any hope of compromise on transportation — for now.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said if the Legislature fails to “act in any affirmative way” to fund the final 10 percent share for the Southwest line, “it’s dead.” Dibble, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said efforts over the past two years to craft a compromise package on transportation funding has been a “fool’s errand.”
Others, not yet ready to write the project’s obituary, are holding out hope that Gov. Mark Dayton will convene a special legislative session to approve dozens of public works and transportation projects, including Southwest. But on Monday, Dayton said he was unsure of his plans, and no announcement on that front was made Tuesday.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck said Monday in a statement that the regional planning body is “talking with our project partners … on any possible ways to fill the remaining gap.”
The normally loquacious Duininck was not made available for interviews this week to discuss what those options may be. Last week, he told the Star Tribune, “We really don’t have a ‘Plan B’ for financing or funding” for Southwest.
To date, about $130 million has been spent on planning and designing the project.
Transit advocates have long called for a metro-area sales tax to pay for Southwest and several other transportation projects — but that met strong opposition from some Republicans, including House Speaker Kurt Daudt. In the chaotic final moments of the session, another option was floated that called for the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) to pay an additional 10 percent of the project’s local share. HCRRA is already committed to contributing $165.3 million.
“The fix isn’t having Hennepin County paying another 10 percent,” said HCRRA Chairman and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin on Tuesday. “That was the worst of a set of bad options. But at 11:30 at night, we needed to look at something. I do think that’s a bad way to go, but we’re committed enough to look for solutions.”
While a special session is still an unknown, proponents Tuesday began encouraging the governor to call one, including the Minnesota Transportation Alliance and Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. Raymond Ames, CEO of Burnsville-based Ames Construction Inc., wrote to Dayton that such a session could “enact reasonable and responsible transportation funding.” Ames is a big contractor that has worked on many highway, bridge, LRT and railroad projects in Minnesota and beyond.
The Met Council, which is overseeing the project, had hoped to begin construction on the 14.5-mile Southwest line in 2017, with passenger service beginning in 2020. But the Federal Transit Administration will not sign off on funds until local financing is nailed down.
President Obama recommended that Southwest receive $125 million in his fiscal 2017 budget, although Congress has yet to approve the allocation. And it’s unclear whether a new president and administration will support transit projects like Southwest.
While there’s no set deadline for the project to shore up local funds, other projects nationwide are also furiously vying for federal funds. This includes light-rail projects in San Diego, suburban Maryland and Seattle.
It’s not unheard of for a transit project like Southwest to be scuttled. Last year, the $2.9 billion Red Line LRT connecting Baltimore to its western suburbs was abandoned after Gov. Larry Hogan took office in Maryland. The project carried an unusually high price tag because it called for a $1 billion tunnel under downtown Baltimore.
Hogan, a Republican, called the project a “wasteful boondoggle” and blocked state funds toward its construction. The decision meant $900 million in federal funds went to another project.