Business lobbyists as well as transit advocates are pressing Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican whose caucus eschews metro-transit projects, to make way for Southwest light rail transit (LRT).

Southwest LRT, running from downtown through Kenwood, and on to Eden Prairie, has ballooned to nearly $2 billion in cost. A group of affluent, politically powerful neighbors is fighting the train in court. Something more than $140 million already is sunk in planning and related costs.

State funding of Southwest LRT was key to the failure of recent negotiations over a $1 billion bonding bill. Daudt won’t OK $145 million in state money that will leverage nearly $900 million in federal funds. The formula is 50 percent local and state and 50 percent federal.

The less-controversial, arguably more-necessary line that also would link downtown to job-hungry north Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, a big source of factories, warehouses and blue collar jobs, is the Bottineau Line.

However, Southwest LRT already is planned and in the federal queue. If it doesn’t get full local funding commitment this year, federal dollars will go to a system in another city like Dallas or Denver, said Steve Cramer, chief executive of the Downtown Council, point man for business groups on the issue.

Dayton on Thursday decided to raise the $145 million from the Met Council and metro counties, a move Republicans protested but can’t stop. The better long-term solution to Metro Transit funding is what business leaders and some metro legislators have advocated: raising the transit portion of the metro sales tax from 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent.

“I think it should move without state dollars,” Cramer said. “The business community has reached a consensus on this project, including the Minnesota Business Partnership and the St. Paul chamber. Everybody is aligned on the importance of a multimodal regional transportation system. That will help our region become more prosperous, more efficient and meet the equity goals. Southwest is the next part.

“We underestimate at our peril … Southwest not proceeding in terms of being able to build the rest of the [rail] system, including Bottineau and the extensions of the Green [St. Paul] and Blue [Mall of America] lines.”

Daudt should deal with Dayton on Southwest LRT. Daudt’s Republicans have proposed cuts for Metro Transit amid boosts in statewide funding for roads. The Twin Cities area is Minnesota’s economic engine that also disproportionately funds state and county roads in rural areas.

The business lobby says Southwest will add tens of thousands of jobs from downtown to Eden Prairie and put 41,000 riders on the rails by 2030, lessening car traffic. Critics say bus service is cheaper and more flexible, so pass on the federal dollars and the entire project.

Southwest LRT is a tough swallow, starting with Kenwood opponents. Express buses from Eden Prairie get downtown faster than Southwest LRT will. And big-time development, such as the $3 billion in planned or built developments along St. Paul’s Green Line, aren’t necessarily there for Southwest.

And yet, developer Kelly Doran’s Moline apartments in Hopkins, redevelopment in St. Louis Park and United Health expansion are already underway. And rider projections are encouraging.

In the end, business lobbies are prudent to join with affected mayors to support Southwest LRT and get the federal dollars that will continue progress on the four-legged rail network.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.