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CTIB approves more funding for Southwest LRT route

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

CTIB approves more funding for Southwest LRT route

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

The Counties Transit Improvement Board on Wednesday committed an additional $20.5 million in funding for the Southwest light rail transit line and agreed to finance $11.75 million in certificates of participation to keep the project moving.

Certificates of participation are similar to bonding but often come with more risk and higher interest rates.

The $1.858 billion line linking Minneapolis to Eden Prairie faces a $144.5 million funding gap. Without Wednesday’s 6-4 vote by the regional transit funding board, the project would have begun shutting down as of Sept. 1, according to Adam Duininck, chair of the Metropolitan Council.

But Wednesday’s vote was only the second of three decisions by local funders needed to keep the project from being delayed or canceled.

On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority board also agreed to increase its funding commitment by $20.5 million in a 6-1 vote.

The Met Council on Wednesday night was scheduled to decide whether to finance $91.75 million in certificates of participation to fill the remaining funding gap on the line.

The Southwest line has been a major point of disagreement for Minnesota planners and legislators. State leaders earlier this year couldn’t agree on funding the line, derailing a bonding bill in both the regular session and in talks for a special session.

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who is a member of CTIB, said the decision to bypass the Legislature and fund the state’s 10 percent share of the line could jeopardize legislative participation in the future.

“We are sending a message that ‘we don’t need you, state Legislature,’” he said Tuesday. “That’s a problematic message.”

Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte echoed Look, adding that he worries that as CTIB increases funding for Southwest, other projects will suffer.

“I really look at our program of projects as being in serious peril if we continue down this path with Southwest,” he told fellow CTIB members.

CTIB finances have been under a magnifying glass recently after one of the board’s funding partners, Dakota County, announced it would leave the group, taking its $15 million annual contribution with it.

Even so, funding Southwest is the right move, said Peter McLaughlin, who chairs the board and is also a Hennepin County commissioner and chair of the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority.

If Southwest LRT funding doesn’t come together, the Met Council won’t be able to apply for nearly $1 billion in federal money for the line by the federal deadline at the end of the year.

That would put the project in jeopardy as an estimated $50 million in annual delay costs add up  and strain resources for other projects in the CTIB queue, McLaughlin said.

“It’s like threading dozens of needles, and you have to do it in order and the needles aren’t all lined up straight,” he said. “This is the needle we need to thread … if we want this to go forward.”

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