There is no good argument for the Northern Lights Express
In 1985, Amtrak ended all passenger rail service to Duluth. It did so because hardly anyone was using the service anymore. Now, nearly 40 years on, there are proposals to…
Hold everything. Top U.S. Department of Transportation officials have informed Minnesota legislators the controversial Southwest Light Rail Transit line does not qualify for $928 million in make-or-break federal funding necessary for the Metropolitan Council to start construction as planned this year.
The announcement came from the Federal Transit Administration in response to a letter from Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt and 83 Republican state legislators who expressed concern over SWLRT’s “financial plan, potential environmental impacts, alignment and projected ridership.” Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., has also urged FTA to reject funding.
The FTA oversees the federal New Starts program that provides 50 percent of funding for transit projects like SWLRT.
Until now, the planning agency essentially considered federal funding a done deal. “The federal government will now prepare to execute an agreement next year to pay half the project’s costs, which amount to nearly $929 million of the $1.858 billion project,” according to a September 2016 Met Council news release.
The development further clouds the future of the proposed $1.9 billion line, even as Met Council planners wrap up final engineering work, prepare to let construction bids and hold worker training sessions for the project. More than $159 million has already been spent on the proposed Minneapolis to Eden Prairie line, which also faces a federal lawsuit by residents trying to block it.
“DOT has made it very clear that since neither of the LRT expansion projects in Minnesota (SWLRT and Bottineau) had advanced past the engineering phase, and been approved for full funding, that they would not get federal funds,” said Kim Crockett, American Experiment Vice President and Senior Policy Fellow.
The conditions stated by the FTA also appear to deal a blow to the Met Council’s plan to apply for a full funding grant agreement later this year. The one-page letter, drafted by FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes at the behest of US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, notes that President Trump’s budget blueprint zeroes out funding for transit projects that did not have a full funding agreement in place by October 2016.
“Funding will be limited to ‘projects with existing full funding grant agreements only. Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,’” Welbes said in the April 7 letter to Minnesota lawmakers.
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck has strongly criticized the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in transit funding. But the planning agency has indicated it will continue to chugging along toward submitting a funding application to the FTA this year.
“The FTA’s response is nothing new and simply passes along the publicly known position as laid out in the president’s budget proposal,” Kate Brickman, Metropolitan Council Director of Communications said in an email. “That proposal is a starting point for negotiations on a budget that Congress will ultimately pass. We continue to work with the Federal Transit Administration on moving SWLRT forward.”
The beleaguered project could move ahead without the federal government’s 50 percent share, but at a steep cost to Hennepin County taxpayers.
State legislators have cut off funding for light rail transit, leading Duininck to break a promise not to seek other routes of taxpayer funding for SWLRT. The Met Council has threatened to issue $103.5 million in Certificates of Participation in July to keep the project going.
“The thing to understand is this: Congress allocates a sum of money to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for transit programs but the DOT decides which projects get funding,” Crockett said.
Center of the American Experiment opposes light rail transit on the grounds it diverts hundreds of millions of transportation dollars that could be spent more effectively to relieve congestion on Twin Cities highways.