Southwest light rail line keeps moving, $100 million in new revenue needed to hit $1.74 billion budget

The Southwest Light Rail line (SWLRT) from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie was scheduled to start construction in 2014.  When the Hennepin County Railway Authority approved the alignment in 2009 the project was projected to cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.  Construction costs for the 16-mile line went from $1.25 billion in 2013, to $1.65 billion in 2014, to an estimated $2 billion.

In April, Governor Dayton directed planners to get the budget back down and to look at other transit alternatives.  No alternatives, like bus rapid transit, were seriously considered since then and while Metro Transit staff presented $500 million in cuts in late May, the Southwest Corridor management committee didn’t come close to that reaching that number at yesterday’s meeting.  Instead, they did what government usually does when it can’t meet a budget; raise more public revenue.

Yesterday, members of the Southwest light rail Corridor Management committee approved a new plan for a $1.744 billion line which cuts the last stop in Eden Prairie saving up to $150 million, delays construction of another stop in Eden Prairie, and includes a $30 million in-kind land donation from the Hennepin Country Regional Railroad Authority.  The plan also includes $27.5 million in funding from municipalities along the line in order to receive a matching $27.5 million matching federal grant, however only about $15.5 million was pledged by municipalities at the meeting.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin tweeted the additional funding needed for the plan:


Per the Star Tribune,the city of Minneapolis pledged nothing, Eden Prairie donated city-owned land valued at $3 million.  Minnetonka pledged $2 million for the project, Hopkins $500,000, St. Louis Park “a couple million.” Hennepin County pledged $8 million. “Numbers were flying” according to an official with the Met Council.  The Chair of the Met Council, Adam Duinick said to members at the meeting, “We’re passing the hat here.”

Those pledging money will have to go back to their elected bodies to approve the funding and the number is still well-short of the $27.5 million needed for the matching federal funds.  Municipal consent will be required in Eden Prairie which is losing two of the five stops planned for the city.  The Met Council stated that the local funding was to be secured by July 31st.

Despite ongoing lawsuits, public outcry, environmental concerns, and an ever-growing budget, the project keeps moving forward.  Federal taxpayers will pick up the tab for 50% of the project with state taxpayers funding the rest at the state and county levels.

Here’s a breakdown, by taxing authority, of money already spent- or committed to be spent- on SWLRT:

The Counties Transit Improvement Board, collects revenue via the 5-country metro 1/4 cent sales tax:

The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, collects revenue via property taxes:

Hennepin County:

State of Minnesota:

  • $37 million in general funds allocated in 2013, reduced by $29.7 million at the end of the 2015 legislative session
  • $5 million in state bonding in 2009
  • $2 million DEED grant in 2012

The Met Council just shifted $13 million from it’s Motor Vehicle sales tax fund to cover the loss of legislative general funds.  All together that’s $180 million that Minnesota taxpayers have spent– or are committed to spend– on the SWLRT line before construction has even begun.  Millions more in staff time and consulting services have likely passed through the Met Council, although difficult to estimate.  One recent example reported by MPR News was the $175,000 in consulting fees to tell the SWLRT team that the excel spreadsheets they were using to track costs needed to be integrated into the project management software they were using.

The federal government’s most recent profile of the project shows a $1.65 million price tag with Minnesota legislative bonding appropriations of $165 million paying for 10% of the cost.  State Republican lawmakers this session reiterated their intentions not to fund light rail, so this bonding revenue is not likely.  Democrats have suggested that Republicans will have to pledge money to SWLRT in 2016 in order to get a transportation bill passed.

Yesterday’s Corridor Management committee meeting failed to get the total price tag back down to the $1.65 billion budget while cutting two stops from the project.  “Passing the hat” for more public money didn’t do the trick, but the project will still move ahead.  Look for the Met Council to approve the $1.744 billion plan at their July 8 meeting, the city of Eden Prairie will likely provide municipal consent at it’s July 14th council meeting, and the Federal Transit Administration could approve the matching-grant money in August.