The vote was expected and celebrated — the acceptance of a new funding plan for the Southwest Light Rail project by the Metropolitan Council.
But members of the council acknowledged in their vote Wednesday afternoon that the project is not without lingering problems. There are still threats to a significant piece of funding from the state; ongoing litigation; and the need to qualify for a massive federal matching grant before the conclusion of the Obama Administration.
Still, after the near-unanimous vote, Adam Duininck, the Met Council chairman who had led a two-and-a-half month effort to reduce the project’s budget, called it an important step.
“Call me an optimist but I think it provides some real strong momentum for why this project is necessary for this region,” Duininck said. “We’re still very much in the middle or maybe still in the beginning of the chapters of this process. We still have a ways to go.”
But compared to the sentiment after a budget bombshell in April, when projected costs for Southwest LRT ballooned to almost $2 billion and both he and Dayton questioned that validity of the project, Duininck said he thinks the regional body again has a “viable project.”
Cutting art, landscaping, parking ramps
What was approved Wednesday was a somewhat reduced project, one based on a recommendation from the committee of mostly elected officials from Hennepin County and the cities along the proposed route. What was a $1.65 billion project — and then became a $2 billion project — is now down to $1.744 billion. Due to some budgetary sleight-of-hand plus cash pledges from the county and the cities (as well as the additional federal match those pledges will qualify for), the new budget will not require additional money from the big local funders: the state, the Counties Transit Improvement Board and the Hennepin County Rail Authority.
The new alignment keeps 15 of 17 originally planned stations — killing the Mitchell Road station and delaying the Town Center station, both located in Eden Prairie. It cuts station furnishings, art and landscaping, but retains all promised landscape restoration in the Kenilworth Corridor between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. It also cuts the number of train cars to be purchased and reduces the size of a new maintenance facility in Hopkins. Some parking ramps have also been cut, while the size of some park-and-ride lots has been reduced.
Yet the new version of the project expects to keep 94 percent of the riders projected in the previous plan — about 34,000 per weekday by 2040. And Met Council staff thinks it will maintain its rating with the Federal Transit Administration, which decides which projects will get into President Obama’s final transportation budget. Duininck, along with Met Transit director Brian Lamb and Southwest Project Office director Mark Fuhrmann, will meet with FTA administrators next week in Washington, D.C.
State money still in doubt
There was some angst among council members about cutting all funds for art at the stations, which resulted in a savings of $4 million. Staff was urged to look for other money to provide that amenity. But Council Member Jennifer Munt of Minnetonka — who also serves on the project’s Corridor Management Committee — summarized her feelings this way: “To me it’s a testimonial to the strength of this project that we are able to cut a quarter of a billion dollars and still have a rail line that people are excited to ride and that the feds are excited to fund.”
One council member, Wendy Wulff of Lakeville, voted no on the new plan. “It’s a better project than it was, but we still don’t have the support of state funding and we have to be mindful of that,” she said, adding that she hoped staff would continue to look for cuts to what she called “still a very big budget.”
Of state funding, Duininck said he would remain engaged with state legislative leaders and hoped the successful effort to reign in the costs after the April increase would rebuild some confidence. But shortly after the vote, a key member of the state House Republican caucus repeated a sentiment common among legislative Republicans: that any light rail line, regardless of cost and scope, is not worth the public investment.
“I had hoped that Metropolitan Council leadership would have seen what everyday Minnesotans see: that this is an unneeded expense that, like other light rail projects, will cost more and deliver less than promised,” said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, who is vice chair of the committee that oversees the Met Council.
But while Duininck has said he hopes to convince the Legislature to pay for 10 percent of the cost ($165 million based on the April budget of $1.65 billion) he said last week that the council would substitute “certificates of participation” for the state money if the state fails to come though. The process amounts to borrowing from investors and repaying them with council revenue over the life of the certificates. Such certificates will be used to show the FTA next month that there is adequate local funds available to cover half of the project.
Making Minneapolis happy
One of the keys to making the final budget-cutting deal stick was to make Minneapolis city officials happy. Maybe not happy exactly, but at least not actively opposed. An angry Minneapolis — something guaranteed had the final budget cut out stations like Royalston and Penn as had been suggested — could slow or doom the plan.
The city’s lone representative on the Corridor Management Committee — Peter Wagenius, Mayor Betsy Hodges’ policy director — opposed most of the cuts aimed at Minneapolis, and had support from others, including Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins. But even had Wagenius been unsuccessful in stopping the deepest cuts, the city would have been able to block the new light rail plan. That’s because state law would have forced the Met Council to repeat the municipal consent process in Minneapolis, and the city council could well have withheld consent.
As it turned out, the cuts to Minneapolis weren’t deep enough to trigger municipal consent. And once Hodges endorsed the new budget, alignment and scope of the project, the chances of council opposition all but disappeared. The sole cut of any significance in Minneapolis was a pedestrian and bike bridge that would have rerouted the Cedar Lake Trail over the rail tracks just north of the Kenilworth Corridor.
The Met Council staff announced Wednesday that it will seek formal municipal consent from all cities on the line as well as Hennepin County. Previously it was thought that only Eden Prairie and the county had to repeat the lengthy process – Eden Prairie because that’s where one station was cut completely and another was delayed, and the county because it must consent if any major changes are made anywhere on the line.
After last week’s corridor managment committee meeting, Wagenius said with Hodges support for the new plan he thought municipal consent – if required – would likely be given by the city council.