On roll-up to federal funding, bumps for Southwest light rail

Despite the latest delays, Met Council is still aiming to begin construction in 2017

Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said in April “it’s still possible” Southwest Light Rail Transit construction will begin this year, despite the $1.86-billion project encountering new obstacles this spring.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board, a significant local contributor to the project’s funding package, spent months mulling a breakup before dropping the idea. But uncertainty over the transit collaborative’s future forced a pause at the Federal Transit Admin- istration, where Met Council’s application for a grant to cover half of the project’s costs is under consideration.

Duininck said FTA officials are also waiting for Met Council to finalize joint-operating agreements with the two railroads that will share their freight-hauling corridors with Southwest LRT. Those private negotiations are occurring in parallel with a public debate at the state capitol, where a controversial bill introduced this spring would limit freight railroads’ liability in a collision involving light rail trains.

Meanwhile, as the Met Council is weighing transit fare increases and service cuts to offset a shortfall in its transportation budget, Duininck has been busy defending Metro Transit, its bus and light rail operator, in the state budgeting process. The transportation omnibus bill backed by House Republicans would force even more drastic cuts, he said.

In April, Met Council extended by three weeks a deadline for contractors to submit bids for civil construction contracts on the project, a 14.5-mile extension of the Metro Transit Green Line to Eden Prairie. Unlike some of the other challenges piling up in front of Southwest LRT, the delay was not unexpected, Duininck said.

“It was a very aggressive schedule and contractors right away said, this is a big bid for us to put together, can we have a little more time?” Duininck said, adding that he expects Met Council to award the contracts this fall.

Liability concerns

Rep. Frank Hornstein described the proposal to cap railroad liability in the case of a collision with a light rail train as “hugely problematic.”

The Southwest Minneapolis DFLer pointed to the July 2013 oil-train derailment in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people and put the railroad involved into bankruptcy. Costs ran to over $1 billion, and according to news reports the railroad, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, had only $25 million in liability insurance.

“So the taxpayers and the cities and the public entities had to pick up the tab, and that’s exactly what would happen (in Minnesota) under this bill,” Hornstein said.

In Minneapolis and Hopkins, Southwest LRT trains will operate alongside freight trains running on Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company’s tracks. The shortline serves farming communities in southwestern Minnesota, and in addition to between two and eight trains per day hauling corn, soy and other agricultural products, TC&W also runs about two trains per week hauling ethanol tankers through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor.

The presence of ethanol tankers has fueled the arguments of those who oppose the Southwest LRT’s proposed path through Minneapolis, including Mary Pattock of Lakes and Parks Alliance, a citizens group suing Met Council to stop the project. Pattock described it as a “dangerous route,” although both TC&W and Met Council representatives have insisted it is not only safe but also in line with other shared corridors around the country.

TC&W President Mark Wegner said the liability provision introduced by Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanksa) “is not at all about relieving any of our existing liabilities,” but instead about apportioning risk.

“Because somebody other than us wants to put in passenger service adjacent to us, well, then that entity ought to take on the passenger side of the risk,” Wegner said, referring to Met Council.

Duininck said Met Council hadn’t taken an official position, but added, “From philosophical standpoint, the last thing we would ever do is” limit a railway’s liability.

Duininck would not comment on the joint-operating agreements Met Council began negotiating several months ago with both TC&W and BNSF Railway, whose tracks Southwest LRT will parallel in its approach to downtown Minneapolis.

Dueling letters

In March, more than 80 Republican state legislators wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, urging her to deny federal funding for the Southwest light rail project. The letter was critical of Met Council’s decision late last summer to replace missing state funds for the project by issuing certificates of participation, and it also noted the project is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by Lakes and Parks Alliance.

The plan to use the certificates, a relatively new form of government financing similar to bonding, was spearheaded by Gov. Mark Dayton and Duininck late last summer. The Met Council intends to issue the certificates as soon as July 3.

On April 10, Dayton responded with a letter of his own, noting for Chao that most of the Republicans who urged her to deny the project funding don’t live along the route. Three Republicans who represent constituents along the Southwest light rail corridor, meanwhile, declined to add their names, he added.

In a letter Duininck wrote to Chao several days earlier, the Met Council chair highlighted the support for the project among major southwest metro employers and the light rail line’s potential economic impact.

Asked in April if he thought the project’s chances of winning federal funds had shifted under the new Trump administration, Duininck said he was reassured by a trip to Washington, D.C., a few weeks earlier.

“In Washington there is less partisanship around transit than there is in Minnesota,” he said.