Stay in the Loop

With 2016 budget, feds remain committed to funding Southwest LRT — now it’s up to the Legislature

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, President Barack Obama released his eighth and final annual budget request — and there’s good news in the sprawling document for backers of mass transit in the Twin Cities area.

The federal Department of Transportation maintained its commitment to funding half the total cost of a marquee Minnesota mass transit goal: the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which would span a 14.5-mile route from Eden Prairie to Target Field.

This year’s $20 billion mass-transit package includes $125 million for Southwest LRT, but local authorities read that more as a sign of federal commitment to the project rather than a hard appropriation at this stage.

Transit authorities and advocates in the Twin Cities are optimistic that the long-awaited project is closer than ever to getting off the ground, but the year ahead will be a critical one: legislators in St. Paul still need to come up with the final $135 million in state funds needed to match the feds’ money and move the project ahead. If they fail to do that this session, federal funding won’t materialize, and Southwest LRT could veer off the tracks for good.

 Full steam ahead

Southwest LRT has been on the federal government’s radar since at least 2011, when the Federal Transit Administration, the mass transit division of the Department of Transportation, approved it as part of its “New Starts” program. That initiative is designed to identify and expedite what federal officials see as the most promising mass transit projects around the country.

Back then, the FTA identified Southwest LRT as a “medium” priority project, but as local funding has come together for the project, it’s been bumped up to a “medium-high” rating. As with last year’s budget, the FTA wants to fund 50 percent of Southwest LRT’s total construction cost. This year, the feds estimated that cost at $1.77 billion, so they would plan to contribute $882 million over the life of the project.

Southwest LRT sits on a shortlist with six other New Starts projects, all of which are a step or two away from full-funding grant agreement status — the point of the process where the federal cash actually starts to roll in. That list includes a light rail project in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., a trolley line in San Diego, and an extension of an existing subway line in Los Angeles.

Mark Fuhrmann, who directs rail projects at the Metropolitan Council, says the federal government likes all of these projects, but the sooner that one of them has all the ingredients needed for federal funding — environmental impact studies, engineering plans, local funding — it will advance. It’s not a stretch to say it’s a race between Southwest LRT and its competitors, Fuhrmann says.

The fact that Southwest LRT’s project rating didn’t change is a big win for local authorities: last year, they had to trim $300 million off the total cost of the project without adversely impacting its environmental impact, ridership projections, and other metrics used to determine project rating.

Consistency out of Washington

This year’s numbers, then, don’t reveal any change in how the federal government views the Southwest LRT. If anything, the consistency encourages local advocates of the project, who interpret it as another vote of confidence out of Washington that the Southwest LRT is viable.

The 2016 White House budget was met with enthusiasm by Adam Duininck, chair of the Met Council, who called it a “remarkable development” for Southwest LRT. “The president’s budget demonstrates the federal government’s belief in the strong merits of this project,” he said in a press release.

And, to the delight of transit authorities, last December Congress passed a multi-year transportation bill for the first time in ten years. That law set funding levels for all transportation projects, including a potential Southwest LRT, for the next five years.

It’s well-known at this point that congressional Republicans hate Obama’s $4 trillion budget request — so much so that they’re not even granting it the hearings historically afforded to presidents.

But Republicans’ reservations rest more with big-ticket talking-point items, like the White House’s proposed $10 per barrel tax on gasoline, than with relatively obscure items like local light rail projects. So, if the Southwest LRT were to receive the green light from the FTA, it’s highly unlikely that Republicans would block it — or any other transit project — out of antipathy toward the president.

Congress would have to agree to appropriate the money for Southwest LRT in an annual transportation spending bill, but Fuhrmann says lawmakers have never failed to abide by New Starts funding recommendations put forth by the FTA.

This newfound consistency from Washington means one thing for the future Southwest LRT: if it’s to move forward, the Minnesota Legislature needs to come up with the cash to match the federal contribution.

Eyes turn to St. Paul

Local policymakers, including those at the Met Council, say they’re cautiously optimistic that state lawmakers can come up with the $135 million share of the project they’ve been tasked to contribute. State and local authorities need to match the feds dollar-for-dollar to get access to any of their money.

But as MinnPost reported in January, some Republicans in the Legislature have major reservations about the big-ticket light rail project, and would prefer to allocate state dollars to road and highway improvements.

DFL lawmakers will have to figure out a way to leverage Republicans’ desire for road dollars to finally secure funding for Southwest LRT. As transit backers have said over the past few months, if Congress can work out a transportation compromise, the Legislature can do it, too.

But if they don’t, the consequences could be dire. Several officials at the Met Council suggested this year’s legislative session will be do-or-die for this next phase of light rail in the Twin Cities. “2016 is the critical year to secure the state funding for Southwest LRT,” Fuhrmann says, adding that if that happens, officials can apply for full-funding grant status this summer, and potentially get those funds as soon as mid-2017.

If lawmakers head home without having scrounged up the money for Southwest LRT, the federal government would lose confidence in the project — and potentially withdraw its strong commitment to fund it.

Federal officials score the viability of a transit project on several local metrics, like commitment to providing funds and reasonableness of the financial plan put forth by authorities. Right now, Southwest LRT ranks “high” or “medium-high” on all those metrics, but the FTA would downgrade them if St. Paul fails to put up its share of the money. Other projects would then gain priority over it. “The Southwest project risks falling to the very back end of the federal New Starts funding queue,” Fuhrmann says.

Minnesota transit authorities have successfully secured federal New Starts funding for three major projects — the Blue and Green light rail lines, and the Northstar rail line. With a critical mass of federal backing behind the project, officials are not ready to let Southwest LRT slip through the cracks.

“We’re looking forward,” Fuhrmann says, “to being able to continue to build out our regional metro system, which will then include the Southwest LRT project.”

Photo: Minnesota transit authorities have successfully secured federal New Starts funding for three major projects — the Blue and Green light rail lines, and the Northstar rail line. Courtesy of Metro Transit/Eric Wheeler

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