No Go! Southwest Light Rail Stiffed in President’s Budget
President Trump’s 2018 budget released today contains bad news for the Met Council’s pet light rail project. There’s no funding for the controversial $1.9 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit line in the administration’s “A New Foundation for American Greatness” budget just unveiled.
The spending plan follows through on previous announcements by federal transportation officials that only transit projects with Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) in place by October 2016 would receive funding. The proposed Southwest Light Rail line does not have such a funding agreement, leaving it ineligible for $929 million in federal construction funds under the new administration’s policy. Federal Transit Administration officials maintain future transit lines should be financed by local communities that benefit from the project.
Congressman Jason Lewis (R-Minn.), who opposed Southwest Light Rail funding in letters to the Office of Management and Budget Director John Mulvaney and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, called SWLRT a “prime example of taxpayers being forced to foot the bill for a project with little-to-no-benefit.”
“We need to protect taxpayers in Minnesota and not waste federal funds,” Cong. Lewis said in a statement. “I’m working for real infrastructure improvements that will actually help commuters in the Twin Cities area, and I’m glad that the Administration is working with me towards a goal of effective spending.”
Regardless of the looming $929 million gap in federal funding, Met Council planners still plan to start construction on the 14.5 mile line as scheduled this year. The first bids from contractors will be unsealed on June 6, according to the project’s website.
The regional agency also intends to proceed with an application for federal funds, despite the administration’s opposition to paying for new local transit projects. Even under that scenario, Southwest Light Rail faces several more requirements on the feds’ to-do list before the application can be submitted.
- Complete the engineering phase of the project
- Negotiate co-location and other agreements with several freight railroads in Minnesota
- If unable to reach agreement, file for federal common carrier designation
- Obtain federal Office of Railroad Safety approval of those agreements
Local funding also remains up in the air. The Met Council continues to scramble to cobble together the fifty percent of local funds required by the feds. When the state legislature declined to fund SWLRT last year, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck, broke a promise and threatened to finance the project with an obscure tool called “certificates of participation.”
Southwest Light Rail was appropriated $10 million last month as part of the 2017 budget bill passed by Congress in April. However, Federal Transit Administration officials confirm that the project’s status has not advanced, despite some media reports to the contrary. Even though Congress may have appropriated funds to SWLRT, the Met Council cannot receive those funds until the project has met all the requirements in law for receipt of a full funding grant agreement and the Federal Transit Administration confers that funding agreement.