New Met Council faces budget challenges

The 15 newest members of the council will be sworn in Wednesday.

by John Hageman

Amid scrutiny and budget concerns, the Metropolitan Council has new leadership.

About two months after appointing Susan Haigh as the council chairwoman, Gov. Mark Dayton will swear in 15 new members for the 16-seat committee Wednesday.

Comprised of local government leaders from across the metro area, the Met Council is the regionâÄôs planning agency and oversees Metro Transit.

Among the new appointees are two former DFL legislators, Lona Schreiber and Sandra Rummel. Joining them are several local government leaders with ties to labor unions.

The state Office of the Legislative Auditor recently scrutinized the council for lack of accountability and an inefficient structure.

A January report by the office found that because the governor appoints its members, there is “limited accountability to the public and limited credibility with stakeholders and other transit organizations in the region.”

It recommended the council be restructured to include a mix of elected and appointed officials.

Transportation for Livable Communities, the largest nonprofit transportation advocacy group in the Twin Cities region, voiced similar concerns in a report it co-published last year.

The report concluded Twin Cities transportation project planning lacks accountability, vision and efficiency.

TLCâÄôs president, Jennifer Munt, is one of the newly appointed members of the council. She said she hopes the new Met Council members will receive more feedback from constituents.

“I think community members have to have a meaningful voice in government decision-making,” Munt said. “I think government does better when itâÄôs done with people, than to people.”

The standout accomplishment of the former council, now represented by lone returning member Wendy Wulff, was initiating construction on the Central Corridor light-rail line, a project that was decades in the making.

But some lawmakers are trying to suspend construction, even as crews work to prepare University and Washington avenues for the $1 billion project.

Four Republican representatives introduced a bill last week that would halt light-rail construction because almost $500 million in federal funding hasnâÄôt been allocated for the project.

“I donâÄôt think we should be counting our chickens before theyâÄôre hatched,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Shafer, who helped author the bill.

Met Council officials said receiving the funds is almost inevitable. A Full Funding Grant Agreement was sent to Congress in early February, which will obligate the federal government to pay for half of the project. The agreement doesnâÄôt need Congressional approval and is expected to be executed after a 60-day courtesy review.

With construction already underway and $145 million already spent, project planners are confident that the funding will come through.

“The train has left the station,” Haigh said in a statement.

The bill would also suspend construction until the completion of a supplemental environmental impact assessment, which will include public testimony about the loss of business revenue along the Central Corridor during construction.

In January, a federal judge ruled that project planners didnâÄôt adequately assess how businesses would cope during construction. But the judge didnâÄôt halt construction because he said it was in the publicâÄôs interest that it be finished on time.

Two meetings to gather public input were held in mid-February, and another two are set for March 16. The assessment process is expected to be completed in the spring.

The council is also likely to face some funding cuts if DaytonâÄôs budget proposal is approved. The governorâÄôs recommendations include a $10.8 million cut to its base funding for transit operations over the next biennium.

The new council members said they are prepared to take on difficulties that lie ahead.

It was the fourth attempt at appointment for Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. He said heâÄôs always been interested in land use, one of the Met CouncilâÄôs duties.

Melander added that while there may be a slight learning curve, new council members will eventually find their stride.

“The Met Council is a big agency, and they provide a lot of services to this region,” Melander said. “It will be somewhat daunting and overwhelming, but those people that I know that are on it will do just fine.”