As the end of the legislative session fast approaches, lawmakers are deeply divided over how to spend billions in transportation funds — with Republicans focused on shoring up Minnesota's roads and bridges and DFLers embracing trains, buses and other ways to combat climate change.
Negotiations began this week at the Capitol to craft a compromise in a broader budget bill that will blend the disparate visions for the state's transportation system. Looming large over the talks: an influx of funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law in November by President Joe Biden.
"This is a historic investment in transportation. There's been nothing like it since the New Deal," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
Some $4.8 billion in federal infrastructure funds has been set aside for highways and bridges in Minnesota, as well as $655 million for the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit and local transportation projects. Moreover, the state is flush with a $9.3 billion surplus — and a bigger share is expected for transportation from the state's auto parts sales tax.
While lawmakers may consider these heady numbers, Minnesota's infrastructure allotment includes money the state already receives from the federal government for transportation. Not only that, the new funds will be parceled out over a five-year period.
"It's a significant shot in the arm, but it's not like a windfall of $5 billion," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. "You really can't say that with a straight face."
Some of the federal infrastructure money involves competitive grant programs that require state or local matching funds to support electric vehicle charging infrastructure, aid for highways, multimodal transportation, and other programs to battle climate change.
The bill coming out of the DFL-majority House includes matching funds for electric vehicle infrastructure, efforts to combat climate change, and zero-emission buses.
However, one caveat of the bill in the Republican-majority Senate prohibits spending federal infrastructure matching money for electric vehicle charging stations on public land.
"Other states are in a really aggressive posture to pull in those [federal infrastructure] dollars to bolster their economies and put people to work, and we're saying, 'You can have Minnesota's share,' " said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
The Senate bill sets aside matching funds for transit projects in greater Minnesota, as well as $10 million for Metro Transit — though it deducts the same amount from the Met Council's general fund appropriation.
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said this week that the council supports federal matching funds for electric buses and related infrastructure.
"These investments will help Metro Transit achieve the environmental benefits electrifying our system will have on the region," he said.
The highly publicized troubles facing the $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail line — delays, cost overruns and issues with neighbors claiming their homes have been damaged during construction — have influenced discussion about public transportation during the session. Southwest's woes have only fortified Republicans' long-standing opposition to light rail.
"I'm taking a very cautious look at light rail, and I always have," Newman said. "This [Southwest] cost overrun and time delay, this has been going on for over a decade and they're not even close to opening it up."
The session kicked off with quick bipartisan action on a bill directing the state Legislative Auditor's Office to investigate the Southwest project.
"The people in the state of Minnesota are owed a real solid explanation as to what in the world is going on," Newman said.
Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $200 million to support the Blue Line light-rail extension between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, a move provoking equal amounts of joy and derision. The Senate bill prohibits further investment in light-rail and bus rapid transit lines on dedicated guideways. The House, on the other hand, is pitching $1 million to expand the Twin Cities' popular arterial bus rapid transit lines, which operate in traffic.
The House bill calls for $51 million over the next two years to support the proposed $425 million Northern Lights Express passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Duluth. The funding could help the project qualify for up to $340 million in federal funds.
But the Senate bill bars the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) or the Met Council from spending any money on the project.
The Senate bill also calls for officials with MnDOT and Met Council to seek permission from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to shut down the troubled Northstar commuter rail line, which links Minneapolis to Big Lake.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic struck, ridership plunged on Northstar; only four trains now run daily during the week. The Senate bill would require MnDOT and the Met Council to inform federal officials they will not pay back federal loans used to build Northstar — estimated to be at least $80 million.
Zelle noted Tuesday that he prefers to determine Northstar's future once an ongoing study on the service is completed.
"The [Senate bill] is very, very hostile to transit," Dibble said, "which is so important to keep our region economically vital and to attract the emerging workforce of the future."
On the flip side, the Senate bill supports more than a dozen highway projects, including a $42 million interchange at Interstate 35 and Hwy. 50 in Lakeville and a $22 million interchange at Interstate 94 and Hwy. 610 in Maple Grove.
Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said the state's roads "are wearing out. We don't really have any big expansion plans. If you put more money into roads, it's just going to take care of the roads we have."