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Think a lawsuit is the only thing that could stop Southwest Light Rail? Think again.

If Republicans take control of the Minnesota House or the governor’s office this November, the state’s portion of SWLRT funding could be in doubt. 

A handbill pasted to the kiosk at Theodore Wirth Park's Quaking Bog parking area.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Gaining municipal consent from Minneapolis for the alignment of Southwest Light Rail Transit was an important step for the project, but there is a less-talked-about decision set for next year that could delay the project, and perhaps even stop it.

Just as a federal lawsuit filed by SWLRT opponents Monday could delay the expansion of the Green Line, the Metropolitan Council would face delays in getting federal permission to move forward if it doesn’t have commitments from state and local sources for half of the $1.64 billion price tag.

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And not all of that money has been legally committed to the project. Specifically, the $164 million that is the share assigned to state government by the Met Council. Of that, only $44 million has been set aside by the state Legislature. The final $120 million must be appropriated during the 2015 session or the Met Council will not be able to make the crucial application to the Federal Transit Administration.

That appropriation will be less in doubt — though certainly not guaranteed — should Gov. Mark Dayton win a second term in the governor’s office and the House remain in DFL hands. But if either are controlled by Republicans after the November election, the funding could be in question.

GOP candidates campaigning against rail 

GOP nominee for governor Jeff Johnson has stated his opposition to the 16-mile expansion of the line. His was the only vote against project approval by the Hennepin County Commission.

Jeff Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Jeff Johnson

“I am not supportive of this, which doesn’t surprise anyone,” Johnson said last month before voting no. “I have been asking for years for a cost-benefit analysis for this as to how it will relieve congestion in comparison to its cost. I’ve never seen that, because it’s not going to relieve congestion.” 

Johnson has made similar statements on the campaign trail, telling the St. Cloud Times last week he would oppose using state funds for the project.

Legislative Republicans have made opposition to rail transit a key plank of their transportation policy. Even a suburban Republican from an area that will be served by the expansion, Eden Prairie’s Rep. Jenifer Loon, opposed the project and urged the city to withhold municipal consent for the alignment.  “There isn’t, certainly, broad support on the Republican side for this project,” Loon said.

Concerns by GOP lawmakers range from doubts that it is a cost-effective transportation investment to philosophical beliefs that an unelected body shouldn’t be making such significant decisions.  

Loon said those concerns may stretch across party lines. The DFL, which controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office the last two sessions, didn’t push for the final funding either.

State Sen. John Pederson

Sen. John Pederson of St. Cloud, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, said GOP control of either House or the governor’s office would likely cause the expansion to stall.

“The Legislature has let roads and bridge projects fall behind and many think that’s because of spending on rail and transit,” Pederson said. “Many Minnesotans believe car travel is still the most efficient and cost effective transportation system.”

He too thinks DFL control doesn’t guarantee the SWLRT appropriation because the DFL senate majority is based on a handful of members who won close races in 2010. All are up for reelection in 2016.

“The closer they get to the election, the harder it will be,” Pederson said of proposed transportation tax increases.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh acknowledged that the 2015 session is important to completing the funding commitments for SWLRT but expressed confidence that it would be approved.

“Our approach to the session is to talk about how the state of Minnesota will fund transit to accommodate the growth in the Metro region,” she said Friday. “That’s a conversation we’ll have regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in control.”

Looking for a dedicated funding source

Haigh said the Met Council will also urge the Legislature to once again consider a proposal made in 2013 by Dayton to create a dedicated source of money to cover the state’s share of transit projects like SWLRT and the proposed Bottineau expansion of the Blue Line. That plan would have added a half cent to the sales tax in the metro area. It would be on top of the existing quarter cent sales tax for the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is covering 30 percent of SWLRT costs.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh

Haigh said such a dedicated source will free up other state transportation funds for non-transit transportation projects.

“We’re just as interested in investments in roads as anyone who drives a car,” she said. “Our buses travel on roads.” But she said the state must get more out of existing capacity via encouraging transit use through enhancements like bus rapid transit.

Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said the governor has not yet declared what he might propose to the 2015 Legislature regarding a dedicated funding source for transit. Dayton remains committed, however, to providing the state’s 10 percent share of the project costs for Green Line expansion, Swenson said.

A broad coalition of more than 200 elected officials and organizations is pushing for an even larger dedicated transit fund than the 2013 Dayton proposal as part of a bigger agenda of transportation improvements. Move MN is calling for a three-quarters of a cent sales tax increase for transit projects, the same amount that was included in a House bill that cleared committee during the 2014 session but did not advance in the House.

Lawsuit looms

The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court seeks a declaratory judgement that the Met Council hasn’t followed environmental protection laws and the consent given by the five cities along the route as well as Hennepin County was premature. Only after a supplemental draft environmental impact statement is in hand can the Met Council trigger the municipal consent process, the suit alleges.

George Puzak
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
George Puzak

The plaintiff is the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, which is made up of opponents of the decision to co-locate freight trains and light rail tracks through the Kenilworth Corridor, between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. That route, they assert, threatens the lakes and the bike path through the corridor. Named defendants are the Federal Transit Administration, the Met Council and Haigh. 

“The Met Council must be stopped in its tracks until it does the right thing — comply with the law,” said alignment opponent George Puzak.

Met Council staff has said that the state legislation setting up the process envisioned the EIS and municipal consent processes to run side-by-side,  not sequentially. It also has said that public comment will be taken once the supplemental EIS is completed early next year. If the EIS identifies new environmental threats that cause redesign of the plan, the Met Council will have to restart the municipal consent process.