Members of the Metropolitan Council this week sent a very public message to the agency staff responsible for mapping out light rail projects in the Twin Cities: Give us time to deliberate on your proposals, and if you don’t, you can’t count on our votes.
In a 9-5 vote Wednesday, Met Council members refused to okay a $75.3 million spending plan for the next phase of the Blue Line light rail extension project. The council’s decision to postpone final action until Sept. 13 will halt nearly all planning work on the project for at least a few weeks, staff at the regional planning agency said.
Even with the delay, planners hope that by 2026, construction could begin on a new 13.4-mile light rail line between downtown Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs, opening up new transportation options on the Northside, where huge numbers of people rely on public transit.
“At this point the work on the project is continuing on schedule,” Met Council spokesperson John Schadl said in a statement.
Many residents along the route are also concerned the extended Blue Line could lead to the displacement of residents and businesses, but those concerns weren’t at issue in Wednesday’s vote. Several Met Council members who pushed for the delay said they support the Blue Line project and hope that it can ultimately proceed.
The main issue, these critics said, was process: They felt staff had rushed the council into an “11th hour vote” on the next phase of the project – a vote that would have broad ramifications, including tie-ins to a recently-announced deal to cover remaining costs for the troubled Southwest Light Rail project.
‘The rubber stamps that everybody thinks we are’
Met Council faces a bipartisan crisis of confidence, with both Republicans and DFLers in the state Legislature lambasting the agency over massive cost overruns, poor transparency and a lack of accountability on the Southwest project.
Several Met Council members – including former Plymouth Mayor Judy Johnson, who made the motion to postpone – referenced these critiques as they cast their votes.
“If we don’t do process right here we will continue to have votes where … I wish I’d had the information I have now, because … my vote might have changed,” said Johnson. “I will say, some of that is on Southwest [Light Rail].”
“I’ve been here for 14 years, and I have not seen something we’re voting on that is less transparent in all of that 14 years,” said Wendy Wulff, the council’s longest-serving member. “If we go ahead with this, we have nothing to hold things back. We’re going to be the rubber stamps that everybody thinks that we are.”
“We’ve got a huge, huge audience of critics out there who don’t trust us. They don’t trust the Met Council,” said council member Susan Vento.
Why some council members wanted to proceed with the vote
Five council members voted against the postponement, including vice chair Reva Chamblis, who also sits on the committee overseeing Blue Line planning.
Met Council member Chai Lee – who voted against delay – said he was comfortable delegating authority to agency leaders to cut deals on their behalf. He pointed out that his role as a council member was part-time. Met Council President Charlie Zelle was not present at the meeting.
“We will not always find ourselves in enviable positions with our votes,” said Lee, who represents parts of eastern Ramsey County and western Washington County. “But making hard decisions is what we signed up for.”
Met Council member John Pacheco, Jr., disagreed with the argument that staff was rushing the Blue Line proposal, noting that two council committees had reviewed it ahead of the vote. (One panel had failed to advance it.)
“It’s not like we’re in a vacuum and nobody’s seen this stuff,” said Pacheco, who represents southeastern Hennepin County.
Would Blue Line vote lock in a deal on Southwest LRT?
But the critical council members said their objections couldn’t be reduced to a feeling that they didn’t have enough advanced notice.
Met Council could not proceed with the next phase of the Blue Line project until planners figured out how to close a half-billion dollar funding gap in the Southwest Light Rail project’s budget. On Monday, Met Council and Hennepin County announced an agreement to come up with the funding to fill that gap.
That deal was central to some council members’ concerns that Wednesday’s vote was rushed: By advancing the Blue Line project, they were concerned the council was effectively locking itself into an agreement with Hennepin County that most council members said they knew little about.
“If you vote for this today you are effectively authorizing that deal that none of us knows what’s really going on,” said Wulff. “And that’s not normal to be making a vote of this magnitude without having the information.”
“I don’t think anyone around this table really contributed to the proposed agreement on the funding or solving the [Southwest Light Rail] funding gap – I know I didn’t,” said Deb Barber, who represents much of Scott and Carver counties. “I don’t think I’m comfortable moving things ahead when there’s not been that kind of transparency.”
The ripple effects
Barber and Wulff said the agreement to pay for the Southwest project – located entirely within Hennepin County – would draw down funding meant to pay for transit across the metro. Those council members wondered whether using that money could shortchange other priorities.
No, Metro Transit deputy general manager Nick Thompson responded.
“We are not displacing any projects,” said Thompson.
Thompson said state lawmakers’ creation of a 0.75% sales tax in the Twin Cities metro to fund regional transit needs has shored up Metro Transit’s funding.
“For the first time ever, we can talk about the certainty of whether or not we can afford these projects,” Thompson said. “Would this impact any projects in our current [capital investment plan]? No it would not. We can build our Metro vision that we have. That Metro vision is funded. That’s good news.”
The likely effect of Wednesday’s vote will be a short-term disruption in planning on the Blue Line project.
Consulting engineers doing planning work will be asked to pause their work on the project after Aug. 31, when their contracts expire. Thompson said Metro Transit staff working on the project would be paid temporarily through the agency’s operating budget.
Blue Line project staff had recently proposed their preferred route for the project, which would connect the downtown transit hub near Target Field with north Minneapolis via a route east of Interstate 94 that would avoid a portion of West Broadway Avenue, where displacement fears run high.
The project’s Corridor Management Committee was supposed to take a vote on whether to adopt that recommended route, and Thompson said it’s possible that vote could still proceed.
The proposed $75.3 million budget for the next phase of the Blue Line project, running through Dec. 2024, would be funded by Hennepin County. The county’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve this funding.
Irene Fernando, who chairs the county board, said in a statement that the county has “demonstrated a commitment to center residents, prioritize those with the most needs, and invest in a manner that allows the people and businesses who are already in the corridor to thrive.”