Did the massive federal spending bill just screw up funding for Southwest LRT?

Metropolitan Council
A spokeswoman for the project said Monday that the budget language covers projects that are seeking money in 2015. Southwest LRT will not be asking for money until 2016.

A short section in the thick, $1.1 trillion federal budget bill passed over the weekend has raised questions about hoped-for federal money for the massive Southwest LRT project. 

The language, said former U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, displays a change in policy led by congressional Republicans to reduce the federal government’s share of proposed light rail plans known as New Starts. While the Met Council has been budgeting for the Federal Transit Administration to cover half the cost of the $1.65 billion extension, the budget language indicates the federal share could fall to 40 percent.

If that’s the case, when Met Council makes its request for a full-funding agreement — when the federal government gives its final approval for a project and provides its share of the cost — the council would need to find an additional $165 million from state and local sources. That would be on top of the more than $800 million they are currently expected to pay.

A spokeswoman for the project said Monday that the budget language covers projects that are seeking money in 2015. Southwest LRT will not be asking for money until 2016. “The Continuing Resolution pertains to (fiscal year) 2015 and only affects New Starts projects submitted for that fiscal year. At this point, it’s not possible to determine the impact on projects after (fiscal year) 2015,” Laura Baenen said via email.

Sabo, who represented the 5th Congressional District from 1979 to 2007, said there are two problems with that reasoning. “I think this is likely to stand in future Republican budgets,” he said. And the same budget expressed intent that only New Start projects rated “medium high” or “high” will be funded. The SWLRT project is rated “medium.” The ratings are an assessment of projected ridership, economic development impacts and environmental benefits, among other factors.

Sabo said he supports light rail and helped secure funding for the original Blue Line, but said the route chosen for SWLRT doesn’t make sense, he said.

Sabo’s analysis was touted by opponents of the currently approved route of the extension, especially its passage through the Kenilworth Corridor. In an email sent to supporters, Mary Pattock of LRT Done Right quoted Sabo saying that the budget “fully funds transit projects for which there are already full funding agreements in place; this does not include SWLRT.” And that it, “fully funds those projects for which the federal share is less than 40 percent; this does not include SWLRT, for which the requested federal share is 50 percent.” (Sabo’s daughter Julie is a member of LRT Done Right and has written commentaries opposing the project as currently designed.)

A congressional source familiar with the issue, however, does not read the budget language the same way. First, the Met Council has not yet even applied for its full-funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. That isn’t expected until 2016, after further environmental analysis, engineering and final design is completed and approved.

Should it receive that full-funding agreement under the agency’s New Starts process, it would be in line for funding, even under the language adopted in the appropriations bill. That’s because the budget states: “that when distributing funds among Recommended New Starts Projects, the Administrator shall first fully fund those projects covered by a full funding grant agreement.”

Only after those projects are funded does the next section of the language — the reference to projects with only a 40 percent federal share — come into play.

The extension of the Green Line from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie is the next step in the region’s light rail network. The cost shares, currently, are $800 million from the federal government, $480 million from the Transportation Improvement Board via a special sales tax in the five-county metro area, $160 million from the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and $160 million from the state.

The state and local shares are in place except for $120 million of the state share, which would have to be approved during the 2015 legislative session to keep the project on schedule. Some in the new Republican House majority, however, have pledged to block the funding and slow down light rail expansion.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/16/2014 - 12:07 pm.

    LRT

    I wonder what the Republican’s reasoning is for blocking or slowing down light rail expansion. If anything, we should be kicking expansion into high gear by enacting a larger metro-wide transit tax. Currently it sits at ¼¢, whereas other bastions of communist thought like Dallas and Utah leverage a 1¢ to 1 ¼¢ tax to fund their systems.

    And the results are striking. They can fund several new lines at once, whereas we feel fortunate to get one line out every ten years or so. If you want a good working system, you have to have many lines and not just one here and there.

    I suspect the reason Republicans oppose mass transit is because they want a greater subsidy for roads. To be clear, the roads are already being subsidized, especially in outstate Minnesota where residents draw more from the tax coffers than they pay in. But you can get more than your share of the pie if you just go take a bite out of the other guy’s piece. The sad part is there’s no reason to make a win/lose scenario as this can easily be a win/win construct. But it’s tough to reach across the isle (or state) when you’ve been going on for so long about how the other guy is an opponent and not a college. Or how it’s a metro vs outstate divide, even though we’re all in this together.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/16/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    Sabo’s Neighborhood

    It’s sad to see some many DFLer’s lose credibility over SWLR. Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, the “farmer” “labor” part of DFL. These unabashed bids to champion such a small group of wealthy Kenilworth homeowners at the expense of the community at large is rather unseemly. In the end it’s giving a number of DFLer’s black eyes.

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 12/16/2014 - 01:40 pm.

      Pork

      SWLRT is a pork project for and developers and contractors. A small part of that $1.6 billion and recurring maintenance costs will trickle down to labor. That money could be used to benefit way more than the estimated 30k daily riders. And it is taking what is now greenspace and building infrastructure on it. Construction industry != DFL

    • Submitted by craig furguson on 12/16/2014 - 06:18 pm.

      The farmer part

      In MN, the progressive fusion of the Farmer-Labor party merged with the DFL in 1944. Hubert Humphrey was part of the leadership. In the rest of the country, they are simply democrats. I remember that my dad, like most farmers, tended to be Republican (as a small businessman) but liked Humphrey.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 12/16/2014 - 01:06 pm.

    One can only hope…

    One can only hope that the SW LRT may lose its funding. The Twin Cities simply needs more roads & bridges. We moved to the Twin Cities in 1971 when our road system was fantastic. Fast forward 40 years and our population has doubled but our road capacity has increased by only 10-20%. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the traffic delays on Crosstown Hiway 62, MN 36, I494, I35E & I35W, I694, etc…

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/16/2014 - 02:44 pm.

      Call 911!

      I just swallowed my pen while reading your post.

      You think MORE ROADS are the solution to our traffic situation? Even Dallas has realized that highways can’t keep up with all the demand, so they’re throwing in a massive light rail system. The problem with more roads is it requires tearing down more houses and businesses, making larger bridges, larger feeder roads, more maintenance crews, and on and on. Trains, on the other hand, have a lot of capacity. You need more places for people to sit? Just add another train to the schedule. No need for another line next to the existing one or a bigger bridge.

      Man, how much road would be enough to suit your needs? We’ve already torn out entire neighborhoods to slap freeways in place. I94 heading north out of Minneapolis has no less than five lanes heading in each direction! How much more do you want? Ten lanes? Twenty lanes? I’m not saying we should give up on roads entirely, but let’s get a little equity in the system and put a couple of pennies into the rail system before we even consider a road expansion.

      • Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/16/2014 - 11:44 pm.

        And with more roads …..

        taxes are lost. Imagine being in a helicopter in a stationary orbit over the 35w 94 junction in Mpls. How many square blocks of homes, business, light industry were lost to the tax base in that area alone ? it is one thing to build roads in open land but through cities as has been down boarders on insanity. Now do a fly over of the area of your choice and ask the question what will be lost !

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 12/16/2014 - 03:51 pm.

      I hope you’re ok with those roads being where your house used to be, because the more roads you build in the center to feed the outer rings, the less space there is left for stuff other than roads.

      PS, Minnesota already massively overbuilt its road system. it has one of the highest ratios of lane-miles to population of anywhere in the country. You can’t build your way out of auto congestion, and building any more roads without a plan for how to pay for maintenance is completely irresponsible.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/17/2014 - 09:12 am.

        Road Ratio

        I believe we are fifth in the nation in terms of road miles to population. Needless to say, we are not fifth in the nation in terms of area nor population, so we’re way out of proportion. Some areas can’t afford the road maintenance even with subsidies, so they’re turning some blacktop into gravel roads again as they’re cheaper to maintain.

  4. Submitted by Mark Nelson on 12/18/2014 - 11:28 am.

    SouthWest Comment ex-Driver

    This is a minor bump in the road. The Met Council will always get its way. The state of affairs is truly unfortunate, where an appointed council has such a huge amount of power over public transportation. It is troublesome when the public has so much trouble understanding the Met Council’s position. Rep Sabo is partially correct in the issue of routing through a rich neighborhood. I don’t think anyone really wants a train coming through their neighborhood. The other issue is, the Met is tearing down the current Southwest Transit Station building to replace it with one that accommodates buses and the train. This is also a cost that seems excessive. The funding of transit is not completely transparent and neither is the council. It is relying on transportation funding, strategies and technologies from the 1950s and 60s. The bulky trains and buses are inefficient. An average bus gets five miles to the bio-diesel gallon. Little demand on the bus manufacturers is made to improve these standards and at a cost of $300,000 to $500,000 for these rolling wonders. The low compensation of the driver’s responsibility of 40 to 50 human lives is only a foot note in this archaic system.

    The time for travel will still be less on a bus(20 to 25 minutes). Although, during winter the train may be a shorter time (not usually).

    Your road and highway system’s quality are a result of the neo-conservative approach, philosophies of economics, and government The democrats lack of guts to fight bring us no action on maintaining, and improving the infrastructure. The increase in size of roads just means bigger clogs in a bigger system. NJ spent $10 Billion on a small eight lane expansion, and the road is still sitting traffic jam.

    There are technologies and better ways to implement public transportation, but it requires vision by the public and leaders. The change in public policies requires people to agree and stand together, instead of finding minor divides that keep them apart.

    The simple idea of having someone else drive you to work; and having the freedom to drive independently anywhere outside of work requires peace of mind. A governor appointed council of insiders that dictates how it operates and lacks innovative strategies is not a service to the public. Bump in the road for a growing oligarchy.

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