Transit advocates were buoyed by last week's election of Democrats, both in Minnesota and Washington, which they believe could help get more buses and trains rolling around the Twin Cities.
From the governor's office to the Minnesota House and the U.S. Congress, a slate of new leaders could plug a deficit at Metro Transit, fund light-rail lines and pump more money into local rapid bus improvements. The defeat of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, a light-rail opponent who had promised to "dismantle" the Metropolitan Council, means the regional government will likely remain intact. The Met Council operates Metro Transit.
"[Tuesday was] a very big day for transit and particularly light rail," said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who was not on the ballot last week.
Transit has proved contentious at the Capitol in recent years. The Republican-controlled legislature blocked any new funding to help build the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail projects, which would connect downtown Minneapolis with the southwestern and northern suburbs.
Republicans also proposed phasing out the state's $90 million general fund appropriation for the Met Council last session, which the agency said would result in steep cuts in bus service. That was ultimately scaled back.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said transit funding would likely be a priority of the new DFL majority in the House — in addition to new revenue for roads and bridges.
"I think that we are going to be looking at making sure that public transit gets the resources that it needs for a growing region," said Hornstein, who was the DFL lead on the House Transportation Finance Committee and a possible chairman this session. He hopes to secure funding to pay for rapid bus lines and Metro Mobility, a service for people with disabilities.
The council expects to have an approximately $61 million deficit in the 2020-2021 budget cycle largely because of rising Metro Mobility costs and lower than forecast revenue from motor vehicle sales taxes.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who has been chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee in recent years, said "the important question is, how do we respond to the need for transit funding in general? … We need to address the state's responsibility for transit — knowing there's a gap that needs to be addressed."
Torkelson said he doesn't expect the state to fund light rail construction in the future. The action lawmakers took over the past two years "puts most of the responsibility on Hennepin County, and they've generated a lot of money" through a local sales tax for transit.
The election comes at a pivotal moment for the $2 billion Southwest light-rail line, the biggest public works project in state history.
The Met Council expects to hear soon whether the federal government will commit to reimburse it for initial project costs — with the expectation that Washington would ultimately pay about $829 million. If that happens, the council can award a $799 million construction bid Thursday to a local contractor who would then begin work on the 14.5-mile line.
Hennepin County is putting up most of the local money for the proposed Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines, which are also heavily reliant on federal funding.
But one of the board's most vocal light-rail advocates, County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, lost his re-election bid last week after a 27-year tenure on the County Board.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said the relationships McLaughlin formed trying to reach consensus on regional transit issues took time to develop.
"It's not done overnight. It's not done through one election. And that's part of what you lose when somebody like Peter is not around," Ortega said.
McLaughlin's successor, Angela Conley, has said she supports a strong public transit system, highlighting her own experiences as a single mother navigating a stroller on the bus. She would like to see the county plug a $35 million funding gap for the D Line rapid-bus project from the sales tax it collects for transit, money that is now largely set aside for large rail projects. Efforts to secure the money from the state have so far been fruitless.
"We haven't prioritized the D Line. And it's the highest ridership route — the [bus route] 5 — in our region. It's full to capacity," Conley said.
The D Line, one of several rapid-bus projects planned for the Twin Cities, would link Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America — along the busiest transit corridor in Minnesota. Rapid bus offers passenger a light-rail experience at a fraction of the cost.
One of the lines tied to that sales tax money collected by Hennepin County is the proposed $1.5 billion Bottineau light-rail project linking downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. That project is snarled in a disagreement with BNSF Railway, which is not interested in negotiating over the shared use of its property for the tracks.
Opat, a major supporter of Bottineau, said the project needs more support from political leaders amid negotiations with the railroad. The project also needs state approval to limit the railroad's liability for crashes, which the Legislature granted for Southwest in 2017.
He was optimistic that Southwest and Bottineau would have a "champion" at the federal level with the election of U.S. Rep.-elect Dean Phillips and a new Democratic majority in the House.
"Congressman Paulsen did as little as possible to help these two projects along, to get funding from the [Federal Transit Administration], to get the approvals we needed and that's going to be different now," Opat said.
In an e-mail statement, Phillips said he "will be an advocate for investments in infrastructure, including the Southwest and Bottineau light rail lines.
"For too long, Minnesota has sent more money to Washington than has been returned," Phillips said, noting the two light-rail lines "will spur job growth, access to employment and provide incentives for further economic development in communities along the [lines]."