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Hennepin County approves more Southwest LRT funding

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

Hennepin County approves more Southwest LRT funding

Janice Bitters//August 31, 2016

The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority agreed Tuesday to provide an additional $20.5 million for the Southwest light rail transit line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, bringing the agency’s share to $185.5 million, or 10 percent of the line’s costs.

The 6-1 decision was the first of three votes within two days by local planning and transit agencies on funding the project needs to continue moving forward.

The Hennepin County vote sets the stage for a discussion next month on gradually increasing property taxes to cover the additional Southwest light rail costs, Peter McLaughlin, the Regional Railroad Authority chair, said Tuesday.

Planners are also asking the Metropolitan Council and the Counties Transit Improvement Board to help cover a $144.5 million gap left behind after the state Legislature couldn’t agree to fund the line last session.

Met Council officials want an answer from each agency before August ends to avoid delays and cost increases on the $1.858 billion project, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck told the Hennepin County board Tuesday.

“This is a bad option,” he acknowledged. “But this is also … better than option two, which is to stop the project.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson was the lone dissenter in the vote. He doesn’t think the line will have the impact most in the metro area are hoping for.

“Despite the enormous cost to build this, and enormous operating subsidies that we will pay every year forever as long as this thing runs, … this will do practically nothing to reduce congestion,” he said.

But other commissioners, including Marion Greene and Linda Higgins, said their constituents want the project to happen. Commissioner Mike Opat said the vote was “ulcer-inducing.”

“I cannot really express how disappointed I am that we are put in this position to plug the hole that the state, for some reason, cannot fill,” Opat said.

On Wednesday morning, the Counties Transit Improvement Board will vote on a similar measure to increase its funding commitment by $20.5 million. CTIB will consider the funding request while already in the midst of reshuffling its long-term budget due to new constraints after one of its members, Dakota County, announced it would leave the group earlier this year.

The board will also decide whether to finance $11.75 million in certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds, but are generally seen as riskier investments to buyers and come with higher interest rates.

Wednesday night, the Metropolitan Council will decide whether to finance the remaining $91.75 million with certificates of participation that would bridge the rest of the funding gap.

If the three agencies aren’t on board with the new funding proposal, laid out last week at a stakeholder conference convened by Gov. Mark Dayton, the project will shut down, Duininick said.

The Met Council is facing a deadline this year to apply for $928.5 million in federal funding for the project. In order to make that application competitive, all local funding must be committed, Duininck said Tuesday.

“The fact is that without resources, at least an ability to encumber them and point to them at the [Federal Transit Administration], we do not have the ability to do essential project activities,” he said.


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