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Gov. Walz Fails to Stay the Execution of Kenilworth Trail until SWLRT is funded

June 18 Update: the clear-cutting has begun on the Kenilworth Trail (and other parts of the right of way for SWLRT). Gov. Walz has not responded to the appeal of elected officials or residents to wait until federal funding has been secured to remove trees and close the park.

The Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis is a dense oasis of trees, waterways and animal life widely enjoyed by residents and visitors. It is also in the path of the $2.2 billion plus Southwest LRT. Somehow the project route was designed to run right through one the city’s most treasured green spaces. All in the name of “equity,” the “environment” and “progress.”

Since the Met Council has not been invited to apply for a full funding grant agreement (FFGA) by the FTA, local officials have asked the Met Council and Gov. Walz to “stay” the destruction of the park until there is certainty over the $929 million in federal funding. The April letter was signed by Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, along with Councilmember Lisa Goodman, and Park Commissioners Jono Cowgill, Meg Forney and Latrisha Vetaw.

Dibble and Hornstein, who have championed Southwest LRT, and the other signers, acknowledged that federal funding seems likely since the FTA issued what is called a Letter of No Prejudice or LONP that makes construction costs spent now, before a FFGA is issued, eligible for future reimbursement.

Yet they argued, “However, we are also aware the that the current administration has not been finalizing and releasing transit project funds for projects that would otherwise been deemed ready to go. We urge you in the strongest terms possible to delay clear cutting the trees in the corridor until all possible impediments to the construction of SWLRT have been resolved.”

That would be a wise move for elected officials. Politicians are nervous because the Trump administration pulled federal funds from a California project that under previous administrations would have been waived through, despite serious problems with the project, including cost delays and overruns. (Those are considered normal.)

What if the Kenilworth Trail gets a clear-cut and the train is re-routed, or does not get built? That is how elected officials lose the next election.

As I have written many times, the Trump administration has attempted to hold the line on funding new local transit projects by insisting that more or all local money be used because that leads to better decisions about how to expend limited funds (e.g. BRT is a better deal than LRT) but also avoids the hazards caused by “free” federal dollars (over-engineering, cost overruns, rent seeking, and so on). Yet, in January of 2019, Congress, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, budgeted for all kinds of new transit projects in the Minnesota pipeline including SWLRT, Bottineau LRT and several BRT projects.

Hennepin County, which stepped up as the main local funding partner since the State of Minnesota declined to fund SWLRT in 2017, was asked by the FTA recently to provide a $200 plus million-dollar cushion. “In response to an FTA request, the board [also] authorized a revision to a resolution approved in November 2018, in which the county agreed to cover a cost increase or funding shortfall up to 10 percent of the total project budget on Southwest LRT, in addition to contingency funds already included in the budget.”

Here is the history of the costs estimates (Hennepin County taxpayers should pay special attention):

  • 2006 cost estimate: $985 million (50/50 split between local and federal dollars)
  • 2017 cost estimate: $1.858 billion (54/46 split between local and federal dollars)
  • 2019 cost estimate: $2.003-$2.203 billion (60%+ local/$929 million federal)
  • 2023 actual cost: $ unknown (LRT scheduled to open in 2023)

The Met Council still must complete certain requirements before it is eligible to apply for an FFGA. Those requirements include commitments of all non-federal funding, completing all critical third-party agreements, and developing a firm and final cost, scope and schedule. The Council has been saying for years that it is ready to apply for an FFGA but here we are in 2019 during the Trump administration without an invitation to apply for federal funds.

Dibble and Hornstein argue sensibly that the Governor should allow area residents to enjoy one last season on Kenilworth Parkway, but one could respond: you supported SWLRT and construction requires flexibility and a big lead time.

I had concluded in the fall of 2018 when the LONP was issued that SWLRT funding had left the station but that was then. Now I know that Hennepin County hired a lobbying firm for $200,000 called Cardinal Infrastructure LLC, which employs former transportation officials, to secure an FFGA for Southwest LRT. Why is there a need for an expensive lobbyist if the LONP signaled favor with the FTA?

I would have concluded that the lobbying contract was just business as usual, with swamp creatures spending all the tax dollars sloshing around on each other, or that Hennepin County is new to the transit game but local officials are really nervous. That gives me tiny hope, once again, that this Boondoggle is in trouble.

But do not ever say I encouraged false hope. If the FTA decides not to fund SWLRT, you can bet that Hennepin County will want to take on the project, arguing that we have already spent hundreds of millions, so why stop now? Absent a shift in the board commissioners with a different view of those sunk costs, the county (and Met Council) will try to fund it with transit and other taxes, bonding and a push for resumed state funding (at least for some of the $33 million in annual operating costs).

And then it will want to build the $1.5 billion+ Bottineau LRT next.

But that is a problem voters might welcome as it is easier for citizens to take on a county board than the Federal Transit Administration, especially with several county commissioner seats in play come 2020. Citizens will want to know what the county’s big plans for transit will do to the budget and their taxes. And then there is the Met Council, which has already has an operational deficit, taking on $33 million in annual operating costs for SWLRT.

Residents in the path of SWLRT might have a better idea for the route and the efficient use of limited transit dollars.

Is anyone game for a lively county election fight in 2020?

Here is a summary of why the FTA should decline to fund Southwest LRT.

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