The White House has announced that, as part of President Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the Southwest Light Rail would be one of two projects (the other is in Cleveland) to be “expedited to put Americans to work building a 21st century infrastructure.”
“It is very rewarding and encouraging that the project has the support at the very highest levels, including the White House, the Federal Transit Administration and the governor’s office, which recently approved $2 million in DEED grants.” So declared Sue Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council.
As you no doubt know, the proposed Southwest LRT would become the Twin Cities’ third commuter train line, joining the Hiawatha and Central Corridor LRTs. The plan has it extending from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis west to Hopkins and then south to Eden Prairie.
To me, it sounded as though the president was throwing some boodle our way to ensure that Minnesota stays blue on Nov. 6. And while I don’t necessarily approve of boodle-throwing, if it’s going to be thrown, we should get some.
So I was excited. I envisioned armies of newly hired hard-hats converging on the suburbs to build a public work that would, if the Metropolitan Council is to be believed, reduce traffic congestion in a fast-growing part of the region. And much of the $1.25 billion needed to build it would end up in the pockets of workers. They would spend the dough, enriching local businesses, and we would all live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, there is less here than meets the eye.
Frustration with House
The “We Can’t Wait” program grew out of the president’s frustration with the House of Representatives’ inability (or unwillingness) last year to pass a $447 million jobs bill that included big bucks for infrastructure projects. A tax increase was needed to fund it, and that was a no-no for Republicans. So in the past year or so, the White House has been rolling out a batch of executive orders that would bypass Congress and presumably goose the economy.
A couple of the efforts have been pretty grand. One removed the obstacles facing underwater homeowners in refinancing their mortgages, and another lowered mandatory payments on student-loan debts. And the U.S. Department of Transportation somehow managed to find $470 million in “unobligated earmarks” — unspent set-asides that were made before Congress banned them. So by executive order, states are allowed to use their share as they wish. (Minnesota stands to receive $11.2 million.)
But a lot of the “We Can’t Wait” programs are small potatoes. And, alas, the expediting of the Southwest LRT is, well, a tater tot.
The White House announcement, after itemizing the benefits of the new transit line — it would improve access to employment centers, enhance travel speeds and connect the suburbs to the State Capitol — almost slides by the real message, to wit: The “can’t wait initiative” will involve using “an enhanced coordination process” and cut several months off the project “by aligning multiple permit and review processes to work concurrently instead of sequentially.”
What does all this blather mean? Well, according to Susan Hendrick, a U.S. Department of Transportation deputy press secretary: “USDOT and other Federal agencies are working together as never before to cut red tape to speed up the time it takes to review and permit these important infrastructure projects.”
It’s not exactly a foregone conclusion that permitting and reviews slow down a project. David Goldberg of Transportation for America argues that the efficiencies created by streamlining accelerated by a full year the approval process for the replacement of New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge.
But James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says that the bigger problem is inadequate funding. Prying the money out of Congress takes so long that some regions have decided to forego it just so they can launch their projects “Shaving a couple of months off for permitting activities in a 10-year process that itself must depend on funding from Congress means that they are only messing around the edges of the problem.”
And where is that cash? That’s what Joe Gimse, chair of the Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee (R-Willmar), wants to know. “Executive orders are OK as long as a check is attached,” he says. “My approach is that the feds should allocate the money first.” Minnesota taxpayers, he adds, shouldn’t have to be the ones to front the dough.
Actually, we have. A previous Legislature, Hennepin County and the Counties Transit Improvement board have already shoveled $47 million into the project.
Last year, the Federal Transit Administration approved the Southwest LRT for entry into a stage called “preliminary engineering.” (It was one of 10 out of 100 proposals to qualify.) But the Legislature refused to grant $25 million in bonding that was needed — even though the Met Council warned that delaying a year would add $40 million to the cost of the entire project. Gov. Mark Dayton had $47.5 million in DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) grants to dole out but gave only $2 million to the Southwest LRT. (The lion’s share, some $25 million, went to St. Paul for its minor league baseball stadium.)
In point of fact, unless Minnesotans want to foot the entire bill for the Soutwest LRT themselves, the project has to pass an environmental review before we’ll find the check — this case, for $625 million — in the mail. So any streamlining has to be a good thing. If all goes well, says Laura Baenen, Southwest LRT communications manager, the project could wade through all the approvals by November 2014. And the line could start operating in 2018.
It looks as though we will still be doing a lot of waiting.