The 2016 legislative session almost made it. Tax and supplemental spending bills (with the exception of a mysterious tobacco tax cut) are widely acceptable to both parties and to Gov. Mark Dayton.
However, the problem-plagued Southwest light-rail project remained unfunded. With a midnight deadline minutes away, a powerful, panicking herd of developers — downtown business interests, construction companies and unions — pushed a funding amendment through the Senate. Too late. Amid confusion, the billion-dollar bonding deal fell apart.
Without a reasonable transit compromise, our opportunity to have a 2016 bonding bill will be lost. This would be a major injury to the entire state. It’s no surprise that a special session is now widely seen as a needed remedy. But to reach a compromise, we need to fix a fatal design flaw with the light-rail route.
The current Southwest plan co-locates freight and light rail in the Kenilworth corridor. When the locally preferred alternative was selected in 2010, it required that freight rail be moved out of the Kenilworth corridor. Unfortunately, freight rail relocation has proved impossible.
Since 2010, we have learned much more about the inherent danger of allowing milelong freight trains carrying ethanol and Bakken crude to run next to light-rail trains. And the current plan for the Kenilworth corridor is far worse than simple co-location. It buries the light-rail trains in a tunnel — running under oil and ethanol trains with thousands of times the weight of explosive material used for the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. And burning oil and ethanol flow downhill. This design is an open invitation for terrorist attack.
Beyond the co-location issue, the route fails to serve areas in Minneapolis with the highest population density in the state. It fails to serve high-poverty and high-minority communities in south Minneapolis. It doesn’t reach the Convention Center, and it doesn’t link to a fast-growing network of bus routes on Interstate 35W — the most widely used transportation corridor in the state.
The Metropolitan Council’s de-facto “predetermination” that the route should go through Kenilworth is being challenged in federal court by the Lakes and Parks Alliance. The court recently ruled that the Metropolitan Council must comply with the alliance’s discovery requests. So that legal battle is heating up.
Here’s a crucial piece of good news: The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) — the main local source for light-rail transit — has more than enough current tax revenue to finance the state’s capital share for Southwest light rail.
Based on this, here’s a reasonable Southwest light rail and transit compromise:
Let the CTIB and/or Hennepin County pay the state’s Southwest capital share, if:
1) The alignment is moved out of Kenilworth, to the Midtown Greenway, Uptown and the Convention Center.
2) The Federal Transit Administration agrees to let Southwest light rail “stay in line” in the agency’s New Starts program while another round of required environmental review is completed.
This probably would both resolve the Alliance lawsuit and satisfy Republicans — no sales tax increase; no more state money for Southwest.
As for Dayton’s proposed $2.8 billion in new transit spending, let’s recall that in 2006 we constitutionally dedicated 40 percent of the state’s motor vehicle sales tax to transit. That money goes to Metro Transit operations — not capital spending. Dayton’s $2.8 billion in proposed new spending is roughly equal to the entire Metro Transit subsidy for 10 years, but with this crucial difference: Dayton’s money goes to subsidizing giant construction projects.
Southwest light rail is the only transit project that is time-sensitive. With the compromise outlined here in place, our future course for transit can and should be an election issue this fall. Let’s study what could be done if the $2.8 billion Dayton is proposing were to be put toward doubling the transit operating subsidy.
When we better understand all of our transit options, we can be smart about how best to improve Twin Cities transit.
But first things first: Let’s serve We the People and get the bonding bill done by this summer.
Bob “Again” Carney Jr. is an activist for better transit and a registered lobbyist for “We the People,” an informal association.