A Green Line light rail train at Target Field Station. File photo

A Green Line light rail train at Target Field Station. File photo

Southwest light rail funding ‘up in the air’ at capitol

Updated: May 9, 2016 - 3:40 pm

Before the Southwest Light Rail Transit line runs in Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, it must pass through a critical juncture at the state capitol in St. Paul, where legislators are debating how — or even whether — to fund the state’s share of the massive transit project.

“Everything is up in the air right now,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, the Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the Senate’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

Speaking April 29, with just three weeks left in the session, Dibble said there remained open multiple paths to funding Southwest light rail. Those include bonding, a cash appropriation from the state’s general fund and the option favored by both Dibble and Gov. Mark Dayton: an increase in the metro-area sales tax to fund mass transit improvements.

Having already committed just over $30 million, the state must now come up with another $135 million, the remaining portion of its 10-percent share in the $1.79-billion SWLRT project budget. Potentially at stake is a federal contribution of about $895 million meant to cover half the total cost.

In mid-April, during a visit to Hopkins, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken said those federal funds would likely go to a transit project in some other part of the country if the state doesn’t fulfill its commitment soon. The 14.5-mile line is just one of six projects in line for funding through the Federal Transportation Administration New Starts program, and Franken was reiterating an often repeated warning that delays could cause SWLRT to move down in the queue.

Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said it was “very critical” for the Legislature to fund Southwest light rail this session and he remains “cautiously optimistic” it will happen.

“Every year the Federal Transit Administration hears dozens and dozens of regions around the country and it gets more and more competitive for those federal dollars,” he said. If the question of the state’s share isn’t settled before the Legislature adjourns May 23, “we also run the risk of hurting our relationship with the FTA,” he added, which could jeopardize plans for future light rail and bus rapid transit expansion.

About $740 million in state and local funds are already committed to SWLRT, reports the Met Council, which aims to begin construction in 2017. Council officials got a boost in February when President Barack Obama wrote $125 million for SWLRT into his 2017 federal budget proposal.

Waiting for a breakthrough

At the state capitol, Southwest light rail is caught up in a debate over how to balance transit funding with the need to maintain and repair the state’s road and bridge infrastructure. But Republicans, particularly in the House, have made clear that there’s little support in their caucus for funding SWLRT.

“I think that the Republican majority isn’t interested in funding transit of any kind,” Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, one of two ranking DFLers on the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. The Republican chair of that committee, Rep. Tim Kelly, who represents a southeastern Minnesota district, did not respond to an interview request.

On April 29, seven Senate DFLers signed a letter stating they would not support a bonding bill this session unless their colleagues agree on some way to fund SWLRT, whether through taxes, bonding or other means.

A tax bill, a bonding bill and a transportation bill all remained possibilities this session as of early May, and all have implications for light rail. Dibble said all three are linked “because they all necessitate a major decision on what we’re going to do with general fund money.”

“Three weeks can be plenty of time to work out our differences, but we need to come to some kind of common agreement, common framework, on what we want to do with the $900 million of general fund that we have available to spend in the second year of the biennium,” he said.

Hornstein and Dibble agreed that any breakthrough would likely emerge from discussions between Gov. Dayton, GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. In his public comments, Daudt has said there isn’t enough support in his party to get Southwest light rail funding through the House.

“Ultimately, I think leadership will hold the cards in this,” Hornstein said.

Expanding transit

Dayton’s proposal for funding Southwest light rail would add a half-cent to an existing quarter-cent metro area sales tax to fund future transit needs. As of early May, a Senate proposal called for a three-quarter-cent hike to the quarter-cent tax.

“This isn’t just about Southwest (LRT), this is about building out the entire transit system for the coming generation in the metro area,” Dibble said. “Southwest is a small part of it.”

Met Council predicts the Twin Cities metropolitan region could add nearly three-quarters of a million new residents in 30 years. Dibble said the road system alone can’t accommodate that growth and that expanded and improved transit options must be a part of the solution.

As he made the rounds at the state capitol, Duininck was also touting light rail’s potential to spark economic development. In April, Met Council released its estimate of $4.2 billion in new development along the Metro Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Southwest light rail would be an extension of that line. Met Council expects construction on the extension will create about 7,500 jobs.

“It’s important to remind legislators and other decision-makers that the investments we have made in the last decade or more have really paid big dividends to the region, to the cities, to the state itself in terms of bigger tax base and a stronger economy,” Duininck said.