UPDATE: Metropolitan Council, MN counties approve funding for $1.86B light rail plan to move forward
UPDATE: The Metropolitan Council and other Minnesota counties have approved funding to fill the $145 million gap needed for the Southwest Light Rail project to move forward, according to the MinnPost. The commitment allows project organizers to apply for a final federal funding agreement. Officials with the Metropolitan Council said they will work with the state Legislature to win the necessary funding in 2017 so that the state will ultimately fill the funding gap, rather than the Council.
- The Minneapolis-area regional transportation and planning agency, the Metropolitan Council, is forging ahead with its own plan to finance a portion of the Southwest Light Rail project after state lawmakers have refused to do so, according to the Pioneer Press.
- The Council, backed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, has proposed to authorize $103.5 million in debt, with the Hennepin County Regional Real Authority and the Counties Transit Improvement Board contributing a total of $41 million — enough to ensure $900 million in federal dollars for the light rail project.
- In May, the project fell short of funding approval by just one vote after Republicans spearheaded a move to deny Democrats' proposal for a $1.8 billion bonding bill, which would have helped pay for more than 300 infrastructure in public works projects throughout the state.
If what Dayton calls his "fifth choice" funding plan is not approved sometime Wednesday, officials said they will have to dismiss planning staff and engineers working on the light rail project. However, the governor is not giving up on his original plan to have the legislature fund the project, even if this alternative goes through. Because the Council needs only to authorize the debt right now to secure federal funds, Dayton hopes state lawmakers will come around and fund the project before the debt must be issued next year.
However, such a long-term debt commitment at the state level in Minnesota requires legislative approval with a three-fifths majority, and onlookers say that the light rail project will have to gather bipartisan support to have any chance at state money. Critics of the last-ditch plan have said that Dayton is trying to circumvent the Legislature, which denied to pledge money for the project.
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Council announced that total costs for the light rail project had increased to almost $1.86 billion, up $18 million from the last estimate. Officials said the Federal Transit Administration will cover 50% of the additional expenses, but the Metropolitan Council needs to show that it has secured the required funding — whether it be through the Council itself or via the Legislature. At that time, Dayton said that "the cost of inaction" by state lawmakers had caused the price increase.
He added that the longer the project sat on the shelf, the more expensive it would be — up to $1 million a week beginning in October. Before this latest increase, project costs were already double their original estimates. Project officials said that was due to the cost of keeping roads open during construction.
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