Is it fair to ask whether Governor Dayton is a man of his word?

On July 22, 2015 the chair of the Met Council Adam Duininck sent a letter to the chair of the House Transportation Committee, in which Duininck pledged: “Should the Legislature ultimately choose not to fund the Southwest LRT project in a future legislative session, the project will not go forward.”

And to underline the pledge, Duininck, presumably acting with full authority as Governor Dayton’s appointee, said, “The Metropolitan Council will not commit the 10% state share for the project without support from the Legislature.”

The letter was a response to a challenge by the House Transportation Chair following the Council’s move to fund the Southwest LRT without the state’s blessing, using a little-used borrowing device that pledged future tax revenue entrusted to the Council for transit.

The 2016 legislative session ended without funding the project, yet Chair Duininck has once again signaled that he and the Governor are considering options that would circumvent the Legislature’s important role in approving transit infrastructure that relies heavily on federal, state and local subsidies for decades to come.

Here is the defiant statement posted on the front page of the Council’s website:

“As we look ahead to a ticking clock on $900 million in federal funds, we are talking with our project partners….on any possible ways to fill the remaining gap. SWLRT remains a strong project, with overwhelming support from the communities, businesses and local elected officials along the line, and we are determined to find a solution to keep the project on schedule.”

This directly contradicts Council documents submitted to the federal government, such as the financial analysis included in the May 2, 2016 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which states quite clearly that the project will be funded by the State of Minnesota. “The State is currently anticipated to fund approximately 9.2 percent of the…cost through a combination of a new transit sales tax, bonding, or appropriations.” It also claims that the project financing is “dynamically resilient” yet it has failed to secure the support of at least four out of seven metro counties and the State.

As for “overwhelming” support, county and city officials, as well as business owners and citizens have issued impassioned pleas to reject Southwest LRT because the project fails a basic cost-benefit analysis. Even the Federal Transportation Administration has given the not-yet-approved project only a “medium” rating under its cost-benefit rubric.

Alongside these pleas, four metro counties and 41 city councils have signed a resolution calling for a total over-haul of how the Met Council is governed. Southwest LRT is just a symptom of the dysfunctionality that plagues transportation policy for the metro area.

Speaker Kurt Daudt has made it clear that Southwest LRT does not have the support of the House of Representatives, which has the authority to spend or not to spend; and support for the project is wobbly in the Senate. Curiously Governor Dayton never included the project in his bonding request.

Paying to build the $1.79 billion line is just the start of taxpayers’ commitment. Here is the Council’s analysis in 2040 dollars:

  • $58M annual operating/maintenance
  • $15.7M fare box revenue
  • $42M annual operating subsidy

With only 31,500 projected weekday trips between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, the House has given this project a “No Confidence” vote. There are better, more cost-effective ways to increase mobility and relieve congestion that do not include the need to build subsidized affordable housing along the line to create riders.

The Council’s cost and ridership projections, moreover, do not inspire confidence at the Capitol and do not include a plan for replacing the system when it wears out in just 20-35 years.

Without strong support from the state, Southwest LRT will always be the demanding step-child of Minnesota’s transportation system, forever the recipient of work-arounds and insecure funding.

That is why the solution that allows Hennepin, and maybe other counties, to borrow the money to pay for the state’s portion of the project by raising an already high sales tax is nothing but a Hail Mary pass for a game that should be over.

If the Governor calls for over-time, leaders would be wise to limit a special session deal to the House bonding bill that would have passed both houses if DFL senators had not added funding for Southwest LRT. The bonding bill contains important funding for roads and bridges all over the state.

Why is one 14.5 mile train holding up the entire state’s transportation needs?

Duininck told the media that he sent the 2015 letter to “avoid the fight” that “could raise governance issues with the council and it jeopardizes us in the long run.” That was an honest admission and a good instinct.

The Met Council did avoid a final decision on governance reform this year but if the Council and Governor Dayton circumvent the legislature’s authority, thereby breaking their pledge, and committing the region and state coffers for decades, it will hand Republicans a sure-fired election issue and accelerate an already spirited and bipartisan debate over how to reform the Met Council.

That letter was not a private pledge between two men. It was a public pledge from the Governor’s appointee to the people of Minnesota.

So I ask, is Chair Duininck a man of his word? Is the Governor?

Kim Crockett is Vice President and Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment