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AASHTO Journal

Minnesota GOP Lawmakers Ask Chao to Reject Grant for Minneapolis-Area Rail Transit Line

​Republicans who control the Minnesota House and Senate have called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to reject a request from an area metropolitan planning organization for $895 million in a federal "new start" transit grant to build a light rail line in Minneapolis and its southwestern suburbs.

That could effectively kill the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, since the area's Metro Transit agency estimates it would cost nearly $1.9 billion in all and has counted on the federal grant to cover a major portion.

Also known as Metro's Green Line Extension, the Austin (Minn.) Daily Herald said the project "has been working through stages of approval for almost a decade," and that nearly $160 million has already been spent on it. It is also described as Minnesota's largest-ever public works project.

capitol0816.jpgIn a March 17 letter to Chao signed by 84 GOP lawmakers – including the speaker of the Minnesota House and president of the Senate – opponents called it a "grossly wasteful project" and said further investment in it "would be counter-productive" to the state's transportation and environmental interests. They argued it would not draw enough riders, would jeopardize an express bus service in the area and "would recklessly consume scarce transit resources well into the future."

Metro Transit, which bills itself as one of the nation's largest transit agencies with more than 82 million bus and rail rides in 2016, recently said the Green Line Extension was finalizing its designs in preparation for starting construction this year.

But it did not yet have a full funding grant agreement in place with the Federal Transit Administration. President Trump in his initial budget document proposed ending federal payments in the FTA's New Starts Program to any projects that do not already have full funding agreements, as the president's team prepares a separate infrastructure investment package.

The Obama administration had recommended setting aside $125 million this year for each of seven major transit projects that await final construction agreements, in California, Maryland, Texas and Washington state as well as the Minnesota project.

There, Gov. Mark Dayton has called on lawmakers to substantially increase state funding for roads, bridges, transit systems and alternative transportation. In January, he proposed raising nearly $11 billion more over a decade with a number of revenue measures, including increases in fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, more bonding and a sales tax hike for transit systems in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

House Republicans on March 21 unveiled a 10-year, $2 billion transportation plan that eliminates operating funds for the Green Line Extension. Their plan would redirect some existing budget money and increase borrowing for road projects and assess a $74 annual fee on owners of electric cars that do not pay the state's gasoline tax, WCCO reports.

The appeal by Minnesota legislators follows a similar plea to Chao in February by California's entire Republican congressional delegation, which asked the USDOT secretary to halt a pending grant for a major rail electrification project by the San Francisco area's Caltrain commuter system. The FTA delayed finalizing the grant and Caltrain has delayed its scheduled March 1 project launch as it continues to pursue the federal funding.

3/24/2017
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.