Is Southwest Light Rail Transit Line on the Ropes?

The Met Council always expected the Southwest Light Rail Transit line to be on the short list in Washington—the short list for $895 million in federal funding for construction. Instead, the controversial $1.9 billion project has suddenly popped up on a different list of transit projects that the Washington Post warns “could be out of luck under the Trump Budget.”

President Trump’s budget proposal zeroes out the New Starts program that funds light rail transit projects like SWLRT. “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” according to the budget blueprint.

Transit projects with full-funding grant agreements already in place would receive federal dollars under the administration’s spending plan. But SWLRT’s application won’t be submitted to the Federal Transportation Authority until later this year.

As a result, a project that once seemed all but inevitable suddenly appears vulnerable, even to the rail line’s staunchest proponents at the Met Council.

“An administration that has claimed to focus on jobs and infrastructure should not change course on projects that are about to break ground,” Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck told the AP.

The opening has led both state and federal elected officials to contact U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to support the administration’s proposal to defund the New Starts program and SWLRT by extension.

“For years Congress has funded DOT programs like New Starts and, unfortunately, these funds have sometimes gone to projects with little merit,” Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., wrote in a March 24 letter to Chao. “One such project was the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) system in Minneapolis, MN.”

Chao also received a lengthy letter signed by 84 Republican Minnesota state legislators, blasting the Met Council for attempting to ram the controversial line through without broad public support.

“The Metropolitan Council’s response to the Legislature’s opposition to SWLRT was to circumvent the legislature, and identify alternative capital funding in lieu of state funding,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Senate President Michelle Fischbach, four committee chairs and dozens more lawmakers said in the four page letter.

“…It is our belief that further investment in SWLRT as planned would be counter-productive to the State of Minnesota’s transportation and environmental interests, and would recklessly consume scarce transit resources well into the future.”

SWLRT could move ahead with construction without the federal government’s 50 percent share, but at a steep cost to Hennepin County taxpayers. Center of the American Experiment opposes the project on the grounds it diverts hundreds of millions of transportation dollars that could be spent more effectively.

“It’s a $2 billion project that does nothing to relieve congestion,” said Kim Crockett, American Experiment Vice President and Senior Policy Fellow. “We need to go back to the drawing board and come up with transit projects that actually relieve congestion and get people where they want to go.”

The outcome depends on how far Congress will be willing to cut back on the New Starts program, if at all. Transit projects in the works for years like SWLRT stand a better chance of successfully lobbying for funding. But opponents insist it’s not too late to put on the brakes if citizens contact their members of Congress.

“Light rail is an obsolete form of transportation that will be made even more obsolete in a few years by self-driving cars,” said Randal O’Toole, a CATO Institute Senior Fellow and public transit expert. “Congress should stop funding light rail, including the Southwest line, as well as other obsolete transit programs, such as an extension of the Northstar to St. Cloud.”

The proposed $1.5 billion Bottineau light rail transit line would also be eliminated from consideration for federal funding under the administration spending plan.