A planned 14.5-mile light rail line created a divide that couldn’t be bridged during this year’s regular legislative session or in talks leading up to Gov. Mark Dayton’s announcement Thursday that there would be no special session.
Now regional planners, state leaders and businesses are left wondering what will happen to two planned transit lines that face federal deadlines and need money this year to keep moving forward.
The $1.86 billion Southwest LRT line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie is currently at the forefront of state leaders’ minds. The project faces a deadline at the end of the year to apply for federal funding and needs to fill its local budget gaps before then.
“I think that Southwest LRT is in jeopardy,” Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said in an interview Friday. Dibble co-chairs the Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
Regional planners have been hoping for a special session to fill a $135 million funding gap in the project, but that gap had already started growing during the wait to find out whether there would be a special session.
Project costs have grown $19 million — a number projected out to October — and will continue to grow by about $1 million per week, Metropolitan Council planners say.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, on Thursday said he thought the project may be dead without the special session.
But Peter McLaughlin, who chairs the board forking over $496 million of the project’s costs, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. The Counties Transit Improvement Board has been doling out money little by little this year as members watch to see what happens at the Legislature. The most recent batch of money will run out in October.
“Now we’re going to have to make a decision,” McLaughlin said in an interview Thursday.
Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck was scheduled to meet with Dayton on Friday, Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman said in a statement Thursday.
The last time the line struggled to get state funds, planners briefly talked about using a certificate of participation. A certificate of participation is a mechanism to receive funds in exchange for future payments, similar to bonding. In this case, the project planners or stakeholders would issue bonds to be paid back later. Certificates of participation generally come with a higher interest rate than state bonding.
Meanwhile, the 17-mile Orange Line bus rapid transit line, which would run between Minneapolis and Burnsville, is also facing more uncertainty. The $150 million project was seeking $12.1 million from the state this year.
A separate but related project at the Lake Street Station, which would be an Orange Line stop, was also seeking $25 million in state bonding that won’t come through for now.
CTIB planners on Wednesday agreed to allocate $37.5 million to the Orange Line project — down from the group’s earlier $45 million commitment. That reduced commitment left a $7.5 million gap in the project’s budget after Dakota County’s decision to leave the board and halt financial contributions as of 2019.
“Definitely this represents a rough patch for the Orange Line,” Dibble said Friday. The senator held a press conference Monday and attended the CTIB meeting Wednesday to speak in support of the project.
Construction on the project is currently scheduled to start in 2017.
Metro Transit will apply for $66 million in federal funding on Sept. 2, but the money is awarded on a competitive basis that takes into account local funding commitments.