Feds: MN lawmakers can't divert light rail funds to other projects
- In response to Minnesota Republicans' proposal that would see $929 million of light rail grant money go toward state road and bridge projects instead, the Federal Transit Administration has said that such a move would not be allowed by current law, according to the Star Tribune.
- FTA officials said that money from this type of grant can be allocated only to "major transit capital projects" and not roads or bridges as suggested. Minnesota lawmakers responded that this decision doesn't mean they can't ask and floated the possibility that federal laws would change.
- Minneapolis officials are expected to soon officially request the near-$1 billion in funding from the FTA for the contentious $1.9 billion Southwest light rail project, with estimated receipt in July. The FTA approved the project in December 2016.
In May of last year, state lawmakers refused to authorize the money needed to meet the federal matching funds requirement for the project. However, local agencies pieced together enough money on their own, a move some legislators saw as an "end run" around their decision.
This move by the FTA has only served to increase the tension between the region's transportation agency, the Metropolitan Council, lawmakers who have yet to give up on scuttling the light rail system and other local entities who helped raise the money necessary to make the project happen. When GOP legislators introduced the resolution last month, they characterized the project as something that was "not supported" and "fundamentally unworkable."
Adding to the project's hurdles is a lawsuit filed by local groups that oppose the light rail's route through recreational zones. A similar legal challenge managed to stall the $5.6 billion Purple Line rail project in Bethesda, MD. Although the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail argued against the 16-mile, suburban DC project on the grounds that it was going to ruin a popular recreational path, it was the issue of ridership that stopped it in its tracks. A federal judge has ordered the FTA to take another look at the numbers that were submitted as part of the project's environmental review to make sure the rail's projected ridership is sufficient.
The California High Speed Rail Authority's bullet train project is also at risk of losing — or at least being subject to a delay of — bond proceeds because of a lawsuit brought by detractors who argue that the authority overstepped its bounds when it issued the bonds for rail line work that wasn't specified in the original voter-approved measure. In addition to other work, the CHSRA wanted to spend almost $820 million on electrification of the 52-mile Caltrain Peninsula Corridor, which the bullet train will eventually share.
That electrification project has also been put on hold by the FTA — which said it will be reviewed later this year — and Congressional Republicans from California who don't want federal dollars being used to benefit the beleaguered bullet train project in any way until the project undergoes an audit.
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