By Eric Roper and Patrick Condon
Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing to withhold state funding for the Minneapolis Park Board in retaliation for slowing progress on the Southwest light rail project.
Dayton's 2016-2017 budget, released Tuesday morning, reduces funding for the Park Board by $3.7 million over those years -- or $1.8 million a year. That money
, allocated by the Metropolitan Council, supports regional parks such as the Chain of Lakes.
The governor's proposal cites the Park Board's "continuing efforts to obstruct progress" on the Southwest light rail project as the reason for the change.
The Park Board has invested about $500,000 in engineering studies of a proposed tunnel under the Kenilworth channel at the Chain of Lakes.
“I don’t think state money should be going for them to spend a half million dollars on consultants to just obstruct the overall purpose of the project," Dayton said at a press conference.
Dayton will release an updated budget proposal in early March. He suggested the Park Board could still get his support for those funds if the Met Council chair informs him that progress has been made toward a resolution.
“I don’t believe they should be paid by the taxpayers of Minnesota to cause this kind of mayhem," Dayton added, noting that every local government has given consent to the project.
Park Board president Liz Wielinski countered that the Board has an obligation to protect parkland and has communicated its concerns with components of the Southwest project since 2012. She added that other elements are slowing the project, including lack of definitive state funding.
As for the cuts, Wielinski noted that "The big fancy parts of Minneapolis are regional parks." While city residents use them, they are also an asset for visitors across the state.
Met Council chairman Adam Duininck said he gave a head’s up to Wielinski that this proposal was coming. “She was unhappy but she definitely said let’s meet and talk together, let’s get together next week. And we have something on the calendar to talk," Duininck said.
The move would also eliminate Minneapolis as an eligible recipient of that funding, potentially delivering a major blow to the agency's budget. It is already struggling to maintain neighborhood parks, which are supported largely through property taxes.
“If we have use all of our money then in the regional parks…we’ll probably end up closing recreational centers or something like that," Wielinski said in an interview.
The Park Board has entered into two contracts with Brierley Associates Corp, worth about $500,000 combined, to conduct engineering studies of the channel crossing.
The Met Council has proposed building a new bridge over the channel connecting Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake to accomodate light rail, freight train and recreational trail traffic. The train would then dip into a tunnel south of the bridge.
The Park Board is examining the feasibility of instead routing the tunnel under the channel, which the Council has said would prove both costly and time consuming.
Another group, the Lakes and Parks Alliance, is simultaneously suing to stop the project over objections about a lack of up-to-date environmental studies.
The $1.6 billion Southwest light rail line would extend the existing Green Line nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. It's path through Minneapolis has proven controversial because it runs through parkland and many of the stops are hard to access.
Above: The existing wooden railroad bridge spanning the channel between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. The Met Council has proposed an improved bridge (Met Council)