Southwest light rail not dead; project seeking other state funds

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May 18, 2012 by Sarah M

 //By Nick Halter //

Despite being passed over by the Legislature for state bonding money, the Southwest Light Rail Transit project is still pushing forward and officials hope to secure funding from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to help with engineering costs.

Laura Baenen, the light rail communications manager, said construction on the 15-mile line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis is still expected to begin in 2014 in order to have service running by 2018.

She said the project has $47 million for preliminary engineering, but it was seeking another $25 million from the state of Minnesota. The total project is estimated to cost $1.25 billion, with $125 million, or 10 percent, coming from the state. The state, so far, has only committed $5 million.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who is part of the project’s management committee, said she was “hugely disappointed” that the Legislature did not include $25 million for the project in its $496 million bonding bill that funds construction projects across the state.

Dorfman said the project has money to begin preliminary engineering, but will need a commitment from the state in order to signal to the Federal Transit Administration that the state will be a willing partner going forward with the project. The FTA is expected to pay $625 million, or half of the project’s price tag.

“It sends a really strong message to the Federal Transit Administration that we’re all on board in support of this project,” Dorfman said. “I think that’s important.”

The remainder of the funding for Southwest LRT is expected to come from the Hennepin County Railroad Authority ($125 million) and the Counties Transit Improvement Board ($375 million).

Dorfman said she expects tough competition for roughly $47 million in money available from DEED that was included in the bonding bill. The project will compete with projects like a St. Paul Saints ballpark and a new Nicollet Mall.

Ultimately, DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips, a Gov. Mark Dayton appointee, will award the grants.

“We’re sort of cautiously optimistic because we know that Southwest LRT is a priority of the Governor’s, but we don’t know,” said Dorfman who represents Southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. “And we’re under no illusions that we’re going to get the full $25 million. That won’t happen.”

If the project comes up empty, Dorman said Plan B involves waiting for a new Legislature.

“The backup plan is that we turn around and go back to the Legislature next session,” Dorfman said.

Southwest LRT, at a glance

—15-mile line between Eden Prairie and Downtown Minneapolis

—Runs along Cedar Lake trail in Minneapolis, with stops on Lake Street and 21st St.

—Officials expect 30,000 daily riders by 2030

—Annual operations for the line are expected to total $32 million.

— A completed Southwest line will connect the Southwest suburbs to downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul and Mall of America.

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