Met Council Poker Game: buying train cars and condemning land for SWLRT

Featured Photo: Peter McLaughlin, Hennepin County Commissioner and Southwest Light Rail Corridor Management Committee Member/Photo from Star Tribune

The August meeting for the Met Council’s Southwest Light Rail Corridor Management Committee was canceled, again. Last month’s meeting was also canceled.

We wondered why, so I called Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look who serves on the Committee to see if he had been given a reason.

Here is what he had to say: “The meetings have been canceled because there isn’t any good news to report.  And they don’t really want what they are doing to get out there.”

What is the Met Council doing?

According to Commissioner Look, “The Met Council is buying and condemning land for right-of-ways and buying train cars for light rail projects that have yet to receive approval and funding agreements at the federal level.” The Center has reported this before but it is worth repeating.

The Council just authorized eminent domain condemnation for eight large properties valued at over $1 million along the route in the event that the properties cannot be obtained by negotiation. The train cars, purchased from Siemens, cost $3 million per car. (We don’t know how many the Council is planning to buy right now; we are working on that.)

Thankfully, the Met Council’s disregard for land owners in the path of their still imaginary LRT is not going unanswered.

Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) authored legislation in 2017 eliminating special status granted to the Met Council’s transit projects in 2006. The Nash bill essentially returns the full cost of taking private property to the Council, rather than shifting it onto land owners. According to the Met Council, the Nash provision adds an estimated $25 million to the cost of acquiring all the land for the Southwest LRT corridor. And that cost cannot be “shared” with the federal taxpayer. Score one for the little guy.

Question: why does Minnesota continue to allow an unaccountable body like the Met Council to have the power to condemn land, levy taxes and borrow money?

The federal “New Starts” program matches federal funds with local funding for transit projects eligible under grant guidelines. Southwest LRT, estimated to cost just under $2 billion, is stuck in the engineering phase. The Trump administration has stated clearly that it does not intend to fund projects like Southwest and Bottineau LRT. But it is Congress, and the FTA, not the president, that makes these calls. So why not wait for federal funding?

Commissioner Look explained, “In the Council’s mind, it’s like a high-stakes poker game. The Council is betting that by spending hundreds of millions of dollars, they can pressure Congress and the FTA into approving the projects. They talk as if it is a done deal, as if big talk and spending will make it so. But the federal grant program doesn’t work that way.”

The Commissioner continued, “And by the way, there is no “continuity” plan—in other words, there is no mechanism in place that would set money aside to take care of capital replacement and improvements in the years to come. When these systems start to age and break down, taxpayers will get handed the bill,” he warned. “It’s like taking off in a jumbo jet with no plan for how you’re going to land. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

But hasn’t the Federal Transit Administration been building systems for years with no requirement for a set-aside to pay for future capital costs?

Commissioner Look was more optimistic, saying, “The folks at the Federal Transit Administration have learned their lesson with train systems like the one in Washington, DC. No money was ever set aside for maintenance and capital replacements. Now the system is falling apart and there is no money. They know that politicians love the next new shiny thing but they don’t want to take care of what they’ve already built.”

That explains why the FTA’s Executive Director told Minnesota’s GOP leadership in a letter dated April 7th that the Met Council must “provide a complete financial plan to FTA that demonstrates the [Council’s] ability to continue to operate, maintain, and rehabilitate the existing transit system.”  (Emphasis added.) The Council also needs to work out co-location agreements with several operators of freight lines that want protection against liability resulting from crashes with passenger trains.

Even if the Council can accomplish all that, it does not mean the project will be eligible for a federal matching grant. Or that the money will be appropriated by Congress.

Back to those $3 million dollar Siemens trains. Commissioner Look asked, “Why is the Council buying trains for projects not yet approved?  Of course, there is lead time to consider. But if Southwest LRT never gets built, will the train cars purchased now be technologically compatible with the existing system? Siemens is not going to give us our money back.”

My intern followed up on that. He was told by the Council that the Siemens cars should be able to run on any LRT track but that they will not be compatible with the other trains in the system.

I asked Commissioner Look how the Met Council’s leadership talks about all this behind closed doors. He answered, “The Council’s best case scenario is that Congress rejects the administration’s local funding approach and appropriates enough money to cover projects like SWLRT. Then if FTA approves the project, it’s a go. The Council’s worst-case scenario is that the Council spends to keep SWLRT alive while waiting for the next Democratic administration. Either way they win.”

Commissioner Look has another warning for the metro area and greater Minnesota. “The Met Council is just not giving up. It will spend money it does not have, and then come running back to the legislature and state and local taxpayers for a rescue. Local officials and legislators who think they can avoid paying for these boondoggles are fooling themselves. The Council will patiently wait for the right time to come back and get funding.”

Met Council reform anyone?