Local officials were understandably elated earlier this month when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave its approval to start preliminary engineering on the region’s third light-rail transit (LRT) line in the Southwest Corridor.
It signaled that the feds “have done their due diligence and deemed this project worthy of federal investment,” as Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin put it.
As currently proposed, the 15-mile line would have 17 stations and run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, connecting with the Hiawatha LRT, Central LRT and Northstar commuter rail line near Target Field. By 2030, it would carry about 30,000 riders per weekday, comparable to current Hiawatha ridership.
But the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County and their project partners have serious obstacles to overcome before they secure the 50-percent federal funding needed to build the $1.25 billion LRT line.
A challenging process
The FTA’s process for planning and designing “New Starts” transit projects is enormously challenging all by itself. FTA officials at the regional and national level — as well as the multiple “project management oversight consultants” they employ — regularly pepper the rail project office with questions and concerns.
One question they already have raised: whether the Met Council has sufficient resources to operate another LRT line, given the state transit funding cuts of recent years.
The FTA process is “like crawling across ground glass,” says McLaughlin, a veteran of the region’s three previous rail projects.
Fortunately, the Southwest LRT project can draw upon the experience of Mark Fuhrmann, the Met Council’s director of rail projects, who will oversee Southwest while also seeing Central through to its completion in 2014. Southwest will be the eighth New Starts project Fuhrmann has worked on in the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C.
Economic and political pressures
The larger problems confronting the project are economic and political. Faced with serious budget challenges, legislators both in Washington and St. Paul are looking intently for places to cuts spending rather than increase it. And state Republicans are openly hostile to funding transit, particularly rail.
At the federal level, President Barack Obama and Congress have committed to slashing discretionary domestic spending by at least $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years, with more cuts likely to follow. How these deficit-cutting efforts play out remains to be seen, but transit funding seems likely to take a hit.
The goal of the Met Council and Hennepin County is to begin final design of the Southwest line in 2013, win federal matching funds by 2014 and complete construction by late 2017 or early 2018.
However, before they can even apply for FTA approval to enter final design, they must have funding commitments for the local share of the cost: the Counties Transit Improvement Board through its five-county sales tax (30 percent), Hennepin County (10 percent) and the state of Minnesota (10 percent).
In the case of the state, that means securing $120 million in bonding authority from the Legislature by 2013. The Met Council recently submitted a request for $25 million in bonding authority in 2012 and indicated it would seek another $95 million in 2013.
Key minds will have to be changed
To be successful in 2012, project supporters will have to change a lot of minds in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, has vowed to stop Southwest LRT “dead in its tracks.” And he is not alone.
Last session, project sponsors requested a modest $5 million in bonding from the Legislature and came away empty-handed.
Fuhrmann says Southwest has the support of the FTA, key funding partners and local communities in the corridor, and is one of only 12 New Starts transit projects in the nation to reach the preliminary-engineering stage of development.
“The FTA’s blessing speaks volumes about the project’s ability to improve mobility, connect people with jobs and promote livability, and do so in a manner that is efficient and cost-effective,” he says.
Both McLaughlin and Bill Schreiber, a lobbyist for the county’s transit board, are counting on members of the business community to help secure legislative support for the project — just as they did for the Hiawatha, Northstar and Central rail lines.
“The message of Southwest has to be about the number of businesses out there and the more than 240,000 jobs in the corridor,” says McLaughlin. “The number of jobs is enormous. The growth potential is enormous. I think the business community is prepared to step forward to continue their advocacy for this line.”
McLaughlin adds that if Republicans delay the project, some could pay the price in the 2012 election.
The Northstar example
“One of the things that changed with Northstar was that there was an election and some Republicans (who opposed the project) lost their seats,” he says. “That was not trivial” in changing minds and ultimately winning legislative funding to advance the project.
However, Annette Meeks, CEO of the conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, unsuccessful GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010 and a former Met Council member, expects Republicans to stand their ground.
“Trains were popular in the 1800s and there are reasons they fell out of favor,” Meeks says. “I don’t see this Legislature saying ‘we were wrong and we really ought to fund this.’ Moreover, I don’t know where all the money is coming from. I don’t know what world these people are living in.”