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Feds: Southwest light-rail funds cannot be diverted to roads, bridges

Federal grant of nearly $1 billion is expected to pay half of controversial transit line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

A rendering of the Southwest Light Rail train passing through the Kenilworth Lagoon.

A legislative resolution that calls for the diversion of nearly $1 billion in federal funds from the Southwest light-rail line to Minnesota road and bridge projects is currently barred by law, according to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Republican legislators introduced a measure at the State Capitol last week asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to funnel $929 million intended for the Southwest light-rail line to a “block grant that can be used for other transportation projects” in Minnesota.

The federal money has not yet been granted to the controversial LRT project, which would link downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie beginning in 2021.

The Metropolitan Council must first prove that it has secured half of the line’s $1.9 billion project cost from local sources before applying for a federal matching grant. An application to the FTA for the Southwest money will likely be made by midyear.

But that hasn’t stopped Republican legislators at the Capitol from trying to divert the anticipated grant money for other transportation projects.

“We could pave a lot of roads for $929 million,” Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said in a news release. The resolution was introduced by Osmek and Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines.

However, an FTA representative said last week that “by law, [Capital Investment Grant] funding may be used only on major transit capital projects. It may not be used for roads, bridges, or other transportation projects.”

Osmek said in an e-mail Wednesday that the diversion “may not be possible, under the current rules. That does not preclude Minnesota from asking and, hopefully, making changes at the federal level that would allow this.”

When asked if Minnesota’s Congressional delegation had been engaged to push for federal rule changes, Osmek demurred, saying he’s not ready to discuss tactics yet.

Meanwhile, the resolution got a hostile reception Wednesday at the Southwest Corridor Management Committee (CMC) meeting, an advisory group consisting of elected officials, Met Council members and others interested in the 14.5-mile line.

“This is a reckless attempt to create confusion and misinformation” about the project, said Met Council Chair Adam Duininck.

He and Mark Fuhrmann, Metro Transit’s New Starts program director, spoke with FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes recently about the Southwest project. Duininck said the FTA official said transferring funds intended for transit projects to states for road and bridge work is “not possible” under current law.

Runbeck said in an e-mail that Duininck’s “comments have the flavor of a personal attack. There’s absolutely nothing ‘illegal’ about our resolution; in fact, it’s what policymakers do every day if they believe taxpayer money is being spent wastefully — they try to convert programs like the [LRT] New Starts program to one that delivers more bang for the buck.”

Osmek had this reaction: “I call what [Duininck] is doing to be against everything our representative republic and our state stands for.”

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who serves on the corridor management committee, called the legislative resolution “extraordinarily irresponsible.” Others expressed frustration about what they see as “misinformation” being disseminated about the project, such as the notion that outstate residents will be taxed to pay for it.

The concept riled several members of committee, prompting Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider to caution his colleagues against engaging in “personal attacks.”

If the project fails to meet FTA’s requirements, the money goes back into a fund that is used for transit projects in other cities. Competition for the grants is intense, although it’s unclear where the Trump administration stands on big transit projects like Southwest LRT. Duininck said more will be known as the federal budget process moves forward this spring.