Significant attention has been placed on Southwest light rail for failed special-session talks that left taxes, bonding and transportation in the lurch. The real stumbling block was the Minnesota House’s radical opposition to local control and public transit.
The Twin Cities metro region is projected to grow by 750,000 people by 2040; congestion delays are worsening; transit ridership is growing. And yet, not once this year did the Minnesota House publicly propose or agree to sustainable funding that would expand metro-area transit.
In contrast, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate proposed a metro-only sales tax to pay for the metro region’s expansion of light rail, bus service, and safe bicycling and walking routes. This sales tax was part of a statewide plan that also provided long-term funding for roads, bridges and Greater Minnesota transit. A later proposal went even further to compromise on Southwest. It gave Hennepin County the option to pay the final $135 million needed to secure more than $900 million in federal funds.
How much state money was at stake in the debate over Southwest light-rail funding? Essentially zero.
These proposals were rejected by the House majority leadership. Ultimately, Speaker Kurt Daudt doubled down on an anti-transit agenda, rather than supporting transportation investments that would serve all Minnesotans.
We cannot stop pushing the Legislature for a long-term plan that dedicates new investments in all modes of transportation throughout the state. Communities of all sizes are depending on it. In the short term, however, Daudt’s intransigence absolutely should not jeopardize Southwest light rail’s imminent federal funding application. We strongly urge the governor to pursue local funding needed to keep Southwest light rail on track.
Other metro regions around the country are expanding public transit to improve mobility and quality of life, and to provide the foundation for a growing economy. Numerous studies and reports demonstrate that public transit is a smart investment for relieving congestion, for reducing the environmental impact of our transportation system, and for expanding affordable access to jobs and opportunity.
Here, inaction at the Legislature has left Minnesotans struggling to get where they need to go, while facing a significant and inequitable mismatch between available transit service and jobs.
According to a recent project report, “When Southwest light rail is complete, the metro area’s light-rail transit system will reach more than 400,000 jobs or more than 25 percent of the region’s total employment. Of that, about 200,000 jobs will be within walking distance of Southwest light-rail stations.” Continuing to hold this transformative project hostage puts our state’s economic future at risk and does a disservice to employers and job seekers alike.
At this juncture, Dayton should do all he can to ensure that the highly competitive federal funds for transit expansion are used to build Southwest light rail — rather than benefiting another state. The federal deadline is looming. We can’t afford more delay. This is not just about dollars and cents. This is also about doing what’s right for mobility, economic opportunity and quality of life in the Twin Cities region.
Dave Van Hattum is the advocacy director at Transit for Livable Communities and chair of the statewide coalition Transportation Forward.