2016 Session Update: Met Council’s Southwest LRT and Failed Model for Regionalism Jams up Transportation for Minnesota

The Minnesota legislative session officially ended with the usual last minute drama.  In the final hour, the House passed a $1 billion bonding bill and sent it to the Senate for final passage.  Instead of passing the House version, the Senate added a controversial amendment as the House was adjourning sine die.  The amendment killed any chance for getting a bonding bill during the regular session.

The Senate amendment would have allowed a local option to fund the remaining balance of the Southwest light rail project.  The project requires 10 percent of the funding to come from the state.

The House refusal to provide state funding for light rail acts as a moratorium on light rail which advances one of American Experiment’s priority issues.  A moratorium on light rail was the lead transportation recommendation from our Minnesota Policy Blueprint based on the fact that there are far cheaper, less disruptive and more direct ways to move people where they want to go than fixed rail.

If the House version of the bonding bill becomes law, another important Blueprint transportation recommendation will become law, hopefully setting a new precedent for future bonding bills.  We concluded more money must be spent to expand and maintain Minnesota’s roads and bridges and we also concluded bonding bills tend to be loaded with too many projects that should be funded locally, if they get funded at all.  Therefore, we recommend devoting a larger portion of the bonding bill to transportation, which is exactly what the House bonding bill would do.  Nearly $700 million of the proposed funding—both bonding and general fund money– went to transportation, a core function of government.

There’s still a good opportunity to pass a bonding bill if Governor Dayton, Speaker Daudt and Majority Leader Bakk can agree to terms to open a Special Session.  The sole sticking point is expanding light rail (Southwest LRT followed by the Bottineau LRT line), and entrusting that expansion and all that it entails to the regional transit authority, the Met Council.

The Met Council, its vast scope of authority and unaccountable governance structure, is at the heart of all this gridlock on transportation. In the Minnesota Policy Blueprint, we recommend that the Council be unwound, or short of that, that the governance structure be reformed while clipping its authority. There were several versions of reform considered by both the House and Senate. None got past the committee level but are expected to be taken up on the campaign trail and next session.

So, it’s still a waiting game to see the fate of these key transportation Blueprint recommendations. Beyond the bonding bill, there’s more to report on legislative activity related to various Blueprint recommendations—some good, some not so good.  We’re still reviewing the final bills passed this week and looking at some of the bad ideas that were defeated.

We will offer more highlights after the Governor signs, or does not sign, the bills that did land on his desk.