Southwest LRT funding has left the station: Will Trump Insist that Met Council Appointments Follow Federal Law?

Last week the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave the Met Council and Hennepin County the green light to spend another $200 million for pre-construction on the $2.03 billion Southwest LRT between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The FTA issued what’s called a “Letter of No Prejudice.” This means the Met Council can fund additional pre-construction activities and break ground next year, confident that the FTA will pony up the $929 million in “matching” federal funds. Hennepin County and the Met Council will use local tax dollars to pay more than the traditional half because the price tag has gone way beyond what the FTA is willing to pay; and trust me, the price will keep going up once it breaks ground. The Council has already spent just under $300 million to get the project this far.

In theory, the FTA could deny its share of funds, but it has never failed to fully fund a project once a Letter of No Prejudice has been issued. Also, Congress, which constitutionally holds the purse strings, made it clear in the massive budget deal that it wanted SWLRT and other Bush and Obama-era projects funded. Congress cannot “earmark” projects, but it can appropriate the funds and back-channel to the FTA how it wants the money spent. Democrats like Rep. Ellison and Senators Klobuchar and Smith fought hard for SWLRT. Erik Paulsen did not fight the project which is in his district; the only Republican to do so was Congressman Jason Lewis. More about him below.

Shortly after the Letter was issued last week, Hennepin County approved spending up to $435 million to start the project. The Legislature washed its hands of the project in 2017 and agreed to let Hennepin County raise taxes to fund the LRT (which it did immediately).

Was Southwest LRT inevitable? When there is over $2 billion to be spread around, the momentum is to spend. But the Trump administration consistently said for the last two years that it did not plan to fund any of the remaining Bush and Obama-era “New Starts” transit projects that had not already received a full federal grant. Trump and Secretary Chao promised a new approach to transportation that required local and state government to have more skin in the game, and to avoid boondoggles like SWLRT.

There is a transportation revolution going on and it does not rely on light rail but rather smart roads, smart lanes and smart cars and buses. But we have nothing on the drawing board for that future; just old ideas teed up by Peter McLaughlin, the Pied Piper of LRT, twenty years ago. (Sigh.)

So, this project was not inevitable at the federal level but Republicans, torn by their allegiance to business chambers and their unwillingness to tell voters that LRT does not relieve congestion, were not willing to fight. At the state level, however, it faced major opposition from the Minnesota legislature and other obstacles (e.g. lawsuits, opposition from co-locating freight lines like BNSF, failed bids) creating delays that put the project at serious risk. You cannot help concluding, however, that the Legislature in 2017 knew that this would be the outcome and did not care so long as Hennepin was willing to take on the expense. (I predict that state funds will prop up this project at some point.)

In the end, the Met Council and Hennepin County’s 2040 transportation vision called “Thrive” for the Metro area has won this round.  The plan is further LRT expansion in the northern suburbs, an LRT in Saint Paul to the airport (get a damned Uber) and a few bus rapid transit lines. Our DOT and the Met Council are only maintaining, not expanding, existing roads, and investing heavily in LRT and bike paths. Traditional bus transit is getting some attention, but it has been and remains the step child of mobility even though it works so well. There are more bus routes that have been canceled than added. Buses are just not as exciting as LRT to the planners at the Met Council. They’re next plan is to add “affordable” housing along the LRT to further “transform” the Metro using massive federal and state subsidies.

This is the vision that The People voted for in the mid-terms, though they may not realize it.

Is there any good news here?

Yes. Congressman Jason Lewis, who sits on Transportation in the House for a few more weeks, asked the FTA to require Met Council gubernatorial appointments to follow federal law that requires planning organizations to have a majority of elected officials appointed, rather than the array of political friends that all recent governors (Ventura, Pawlenty, Dayton) have appointed. The exemption has created a staff-driven agency that views elected officials as a temporary annoyance.

And recall that the Met Council is the only planning agency in a major metro area, and maybe the entire country, that does not follow federal law on governance. Because of that, Congressman Lewis was able to get the House to vote to pull the exemption, but the measure died in the U.S. Senate at the request of Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.

The FTA has agreed to undertake that review; it could issue a decision still this year but sometime in 2019 is much more likely.

Would it make a difference if elected officials are appointed instead of friends of the governor? Let’s say it would be much more than a consolation prize. It would be a solid win for accountability.

While I am somewhat skeptical about how much difference it will make if we do not eventually get the scope of the Met Council’s authority cut back, elected officials might gladly trim the sails of the Council, or at least make better transportation decisions. Democrats and Republicans alike are constantly frustrated by the Council’s arrogance and tin ear on local issues. It has so much power compared to other planning agencies around the country. But cutting back on Council authority, I think, requires a governor willing to take that on, and then convincing the legislature to help. Walz will not be that guy.

But because elected officials know their communities and have more accountability to more people, this would still be a great step forward. The commissioners appointed by governors are only accountable to the governor.

So, Minnesota is on track to spend $2.03 billion for about 15 miles of track. Note that you can add road lanes for about 10% of that cost. My theory has always been that Hennepin County voters think that someone else is going to take the LRT so they can drive with less congestion. When Southwest LRT fails to reduce congestion in the west metro, perhaps Minnesotans will choose more wisely at the polls. The construction phase of the LRT ought to provide plenty of down-time in traffic to think about it.

If you would like to ask Secretary Chao to make the Council comply with federal law, click on Congressman Lewis’s request here. You can copy what Lewis said, or put the request in your own words. Send a copy to the White House. It might help!