The budget compromise to fund the federal government, reached over the weekend in Washington but still pending final approval by lawmakers, had one detail of particular interest to Minnesotans: it includes funding for the Southwest Light Rail project.
Under the compromise, which funds the government through the end of the fiscal year, SWLRT will receive $10 million from the Federal Transit Administration. The budget includes the project as one of four that are anticipated to receive a full-funding grant agreement between federal and state authorities. That agreement would lock in over $900 million in federal support for the project over the course of construction. The others are in Maryland, Washington state and California.
Officials at the Metropolitan Council had been optimistic that the full-funding grant agreement would be reached this year. President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint injected some level of uncertainty: he proposed to cut funding for the feds’ so-called New Starts program, which funds SWLRT and other transit projects.
Republican negotiators in D.C. did not see those cuts through to the budget agreement, and agreed to provide over $1.6 billion to New Starts programs.
“This is encouraging news, ” said Met Council Chair Adam Duininck. “The inclusion of SWLRT in the proposed budget is an indication that the federal delegation understands the project is a key piece of our region’s transporation infrastructure.”
As the staff was preparing the statement, agency spokesman John Schadl quipped: “It’s a good morning here at the Met Council.” The agency is on track to make submit its application for the agreement later this year – likely sometime in the sumer. Once approved, construction can start with an expectation that it could begin this fall. Passenger service is expected to begin in the first half of 2021.
The $1.858 billion, 14.5-mile extension of the current Green Line train has been controversial, first for its route and then for its funding problems.
The route goes from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie but must pass through the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis along the way. Neighbors objected that the route — which includes new bridges over the Kenilworth channel and a tunnel south of there. A lawsuit was filed challenging the decision. A federal judge found that while the Met Council got very close to prejudging the environmental review of the route, it did not cross the line into illegality.
It also went through a cut in scope when cost estimates increased in 2015.
There has also been an ongoing fight between Republicans in the state Legislature and the Met Council over what was to have been a 10 percent funding share. The Met Council and the five-county Counties Transit Improvement Board have since come up with a funding mechanism that avoids a state contribution.
Even with the state government no longer a funding partner, some GOP leaders have tried to urge the new federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to halt the full-funding grant agreement. That brought letters from Gov. Mark Dayton and local government officials to Chao to support the agreement.
The federal government will pay $929 million — half of the total costs for the extension — with the remainder shared by CTIB and the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority. The Met Council has been proceeding with the project with local funds, some of which will be reimbursed once federal money starts flowing. The council has approved the purchase of rails cars and has been holding briefings for potential contractors.