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Delay on Southwest Light Rail is not cost-free; it’s time to come together

In a time of gridlock and limited public budgets, we are competing for the same federal dollars with regions like Denver, Seattle and Dallas.

It's no accident that President Obama recently stood at Union Depot — the hub of the Central Corridor — to announce new federal investments in transportation that will provide jobs and promote economic opportunity.
Courtesy of Metro Transit

The Southwest Light Rail line is an audacious idea. It dares to connect downtown, north Minneapolis, and western suburbs like Eden Prairie.  

Rep. Keith Ellison

The Southwest line will connect residents who need jobs to job opportunities. It will whisk suburban residents to work or recreation in downtown Minneapolis quickly and safely.  More than that, residents will be able to connect with other lines that can take them to downtown St. Paul or to Big Lake. 

Southwest Light Rail promises to be awesome, but there’s one problem: We can’t reach agreement on how to handle the freight rail currently running through the Kenilworth corridor.  

The clock is ticking. The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) passed a resolution on Feb. 19 to pull its 30 percent funding share from the project on June 30, 2014, unless there’s an agreement in place.  That’s about three months from now.

Without the CTIB funding, the Southwest line is history.

Opportunities too important to lose

We cannot afford to let the clock run out. The entire metro region would lose the chance to add thousands of needed construction jobs; we would lose millions in added housing and commerce; and we would lose the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and congestion.  

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We face significant income gaps between communities in our region. If we are serious about promoting equity, we need a train line that will connect folks who need jobs to the places where jobs are available.

As with any difficult policy question, all concerned have a legitimate basis for their positions. Unfortunately, there is no option that will please everyone. Some will have misgivings. I don’t envy local leaders who are charged with making these decisions. But delay is not cost-free. 

Half of the funding for the project will come from the federal government. I have fought hard to expand transit funding to put people to work building vital projects nationwide, as the president called for when he visited Minnesota recently. However, with the current Congress, transportation funding is flat or declining.  

Competing with Denver, Seattle and others

In a time of gridlock and limited public budgets, we are competing for the same federal dollars with regions like Denver, Seattle and Dallas, which all have rail lines at the same stage as Southwest Light Rail. Federal funding is not a guarantee, and we cannot afford to fall behind or lose out to other sections of the country.  

Minnesotans directly impacted by the project must have their views carefully considered and we must make every attempt to mitigate the impacts of the project. I support the studies requested by the governor and additional opportunities for public comment and engagement. But we should also hear the needs of the broader community. Northside residents, suffering some of the worst unemployment in the state, should be included. Eden Prairie residents who sit in traffic should have their interests addressed.

Now, it’s no accident that President Obama recently stood at Union Depot — the hub of the Central Corridor — to announce new federal investments in transportation that will provide jobs and promote economic opportunity. We are a national model, and we’re known for having our act together. But that good will is not guaranteed forever.

The situation calls for our leaders and communities to come together. If we succeed, then generations will know that in the Twin Cities you can get where you are going quickly and easily on the light rail. To achieve our vision of a vibrant, equitable region we must extend our metro transit system and build the Southwest Rail Line. Let’s live up to our promise as a diverse community that gets things done.

It’s time to decide.

Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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