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Southwest Light Rail Might Need More Local Dollars

Obstacles continue to pile up in SWLRT's pathway to approval

Obstacles continue to pile up in SWLRT's pathway to approval

Now it appears the federal government is pushing for a 60/40 local/federal split on funding for major transportation projects rather than splitting costs down the middle, which could create more problems for the Southwest Light Rail project.

A clause buried on page 1,461 of the 2015 federal budget bill passed by the House and Senate last week declared the new preferred guidelines for "New Starts" federal transit projects funded in 2015.

Yesterday the Metropolitan Council issued a statement pointing out that the preference toward increased local funding doesn't apply to SWLRT because it's fishing for dollars in 2016, but with anti-light rail Republicans in charge of the House and Senate it seems unlikely the guidelines will change. See also: Mpls Approves Southwest LRT, Paving Way for Legislature to Wrangle Over Funding

The clause reads:

"...when distributing funds among Recommended New Starts Projects, the Administrator shall first fully fund those projects covered by a full funding grant agreement, then fully fund those projects whose [federal] share is less than 40 percent, and then distribute the remaining funds..."

If the 60/40 rule stays in place next year, SWLRT will have to raise an another $164 million of local dollars to move to the front of the line, and that's not even factoring in the expected $121 million in state funding that still needs to get through a GOP-controlled state House.

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Altogether that would bring the local funding commitment to about $1 billion, give or take depending on whether the train tunnels under or bridges over the Kenilworth Channel.

"Met Council argues that this change is just for this year, and they'll still be all good next year, but to me this looks like a policy change with the GOP in charge now," said Mary Pattock with the Lakes and Parks Alliance. "It's starting to look like the emperor has no clothes. Where's that extra 10 percent going to come from?"

The Lakes and Parks Alliance has a pending legal challenge over the lack of environmental data available when cities voted on the route earlier this year, and the Minneapolis Park Board is considering a lawsuit to protect Kenilworth Channel as well.

Perhaps Minnesota should've seen this coming. A report stemming from a federal hearing St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman testified at last December raised alarm over the fact that there's already about $14 billion worth of applications for federal "New Starts" transit dollars and only $2 billion per year of funding.

"Given these demands on program funding, projects that have completed the applicable requirements of the New Starts program may face delays in securing grant agreements or receiving their full grant amounts," the report reads.

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