Light-rail project gets OK from federal agencies

Travis Reed

After reviewing all 37 pounds of the Twin Cities light-rail plan and conducting lengthy meetings with state officials, federal agencies have given the rail program the green light to move into the project’s final stage of development.
The project, along with similar proposals in 12 other cities, has been given “an enhanced legal status” by the Federal Transit Association, and the Federal Aviation Administration has approved $70 million in previously contested funding from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The final step in securing federal funding is receiving the authority to move on to the $548 million project’s final design, a ruling Minnesota Department of Transportation officials expect in October.
But some state officials aren’t ready to rush out and buy their train passes just yet. The recent federal rulings aren’t the last hurdle in securing funding, and the project still hasn’t guaranteed any of the $270 million needed from federal coffers.
State House Republicans haven’t ruled out the prospect of pulling $100 million in state funding already earmarked for the project, and they say the most recent advancement doesn’t change much for the big picture.
“I don’t look at it as a defeat. I just look at it as the federal government saying they agree with our preliminary plan,” said Rep. Carol Molnau, R-Chaska. “I don’t know that it means it’s a done deal. We still have major concerns about the way things were done, and the FTA also has those concerns.”
Some of those concerns include questions about the management of the light rail and possible conflicts of interest for some of the consultants who helped design the line and who might have the inside track on contract bidding.
Molnau and other light-rail critics say light-rail funding proposals were intentionally pitched well below the actual cost of the programs, and the state or county will have to break the bank to cover the excess. Molnau says she expects Hennepin County to shoulder most of the burden, and she wants to give taxpayers the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to proceed in a referendum before all is said and done.
“(The project) is not an efficient use of taxpayer money,” Molnau said. “If the issue is moving people and economic redevelopment, it’s going to take additional subsidies to make that happen.”
Not so fast, says Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. He said it’s now or never for a Minneapolis light-rail project, and if the area doesn’t jump on the project’s bandwagon now, the Twin Cities will have to wait several years before another opportunity will arise.
“From a federal perspective, the amount of funding will be used by others. If we don’t do it now, it’ll be five years before we can do it again because we’ll be at the back of the line,” Gibbons said. “There are still a lot of projects chasing after a small amount of money.”
If the currently proposed light-rail project goes through as planned, Gov. Jesse Ventura and other light-rail advocates plan to pursue expansion of the rail system, including the construction of a route connecting St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.