Light Rail Project A Heavyweight State Issue

The proposed $1.8 billion light rail project would be just 14.5 miles long, but a controversy surrounding it derailed what some say could have been more than 3,000 lane-miles of road work throughout Minnesota.

Also left on the siding were hundreds of millions of public works funding for projects ranging from $27 million for a University of Minnesota Duluth chemical sciences and advanced materials building to $11.6 million in flood prevention activities to $57.6 million for improving security at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.

Light rail supporters expect nearly 34,000 rides each weekday on the long-sought light rail line in the southwest Twin Cities area, but opponents say that pales in comparison to the need to improve roads used by most of Minnesota’s 5.5 million residents.

It is a debate that has gone on for years, and likely is nowhere near an end, but reached a peak Sunday night, May 22, as the Minnesota Legislature was minutes from wrapping up.

Work to draw up bills to fund public works projects and transportation failed in the final days of the session, and a last-ditch attempt resulted in a deal among legislative leaders. The deal merged the public works and transportation bills, but lawmakers did not see it until an hour before the midnight deadline.

It eventually failed after the Senate tacked on an amendment dealing with light rail.

With the possibility that a special legislative session will debate transportation funding, the Southwest Light Rail Transit project remains in the spotlight. There is a debate whether the spotlight should be statewide, or focused on the area most affected.

“It is a metropolitan issue,” said former state Rep. Dan Dorman, now head of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. “We shouldn’t be involved in it.”

Dorman, a Republican who as legislator did not always follow his caucus, said he thinks the rail line will be built, “so the best thing for greater Minnesota is to make sure the cost are paid for as closely as possible by those who are going to use it.”

He said that he likes the idea of allowing Twin Cities governments to raise local sales taxes to fund light rail.

If taxes are not allowed to go up, and the line is built, Dorman said he worries money would come from state funding for schools, city aid and other needs.

At his Albert Lea tire store, Dorman said, about the only time people bring up the subject is when they talk about hopping on a train for a Twins baseball game in downtown Minneapolis, parking in another part of the Twin Cities to avoid the heavy traffic near Target Field.

Opponents and supporters often agree that the impact of the southwest light rail line would be felt across Minnesota. Of course, they disagree on how it would affect those far from the line.

Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said he sees several reasons for the project to proceed, including the fact that most of its construction funding already is in place.

If the state approves $134 million, that should open the door to nearly $900 million of federal money. If that happens, the line could be running in 2020.

Adding the line would free up transportation money for other parts of the state, Dibble said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks people who live outside the Twin Cities “want money spent on roads and bridges.”

“I think people see the trains in the metro as extras, and they see roads as the basics…” Daudt said. “They want to see the basics done first.”

The public works-transportation bill that died when time ran out during the regular session would have spent $800 million on transportation, with more than $700 million for state and local roads and bridges.

Gov. Mark Dayton and fellow Democrats say that hundreds of thousands of people will move to the Twin Cities in the next couple decades, and not enough new roads can be built for them. Building roads would cost all Minnesotans.

“It is a lot more expensive if you can afford it (to build roads), and you can’t afford it,” Dibble said.

The senator added that GOP lawmakers’ contention that light rail is more expensive than adding roads or bus lines is “completely false.”

Daudt doesn’t buy that.

“You can buy a bus for $800,000 and you can’t even buy a train for $800 million,” he said. “That is the difference, the upfront capital cost.”

The speaker said that the state would pay subsidies for every ride on light rail. True, Dibble said, but that is what happens with state-build roads and for bus lines.

The Metropolitan Council, which oversees Twin Cities transit and other government functions, estimates that the state would pay a $1.75 subsidy for each southwest light rail ride, a figure that falls between the two existing lines. However, the per-ride subsidies for buses range from $2.71 to $27.90, the council reports.

The Dayton administration, including the governor himself, constantly remind Republicans that many businesses along the proposed line from downtown Minneapolis through the rapidly growing communities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie publicly support construction.

However, Daudt calls it “highly controversial,” reminding Democrats that at least two lawsuits are trying to stop it. There are too many unanswered questions to proceed, he said.

“We aren’t saying absolutely no,” Daudt said. “We are saying get your ducks in a row before trying to move forward.”