Southwest Light Rail gets support from west metro mayors

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

The ride for Southwest Light Rail legislation in a Senate committee on Wednesday (Feb. 27) was a little bumpy.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, brought two bonding bills before the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, one going for a grand slam $118 million in bonding for the proposed 15-mile line, the other a more modest $37 million bill.

 

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, presents her Southwest Light Rail bonding bills to the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. To Franzens's left is Edina Mayor James Hovland, with Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schnieder to the right. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, presents her Southwest Light Rail bonding bills to the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. To Franzens’s left is Edina Mayor James Hovland, with Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schnieder to the right. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“This is a good value for our taxpayers,” Franzen said of the line, a $1.25 billion capital project.

The state would be on the hook for about 10 percent of Southwest construction costs.

West metro mayors pulled up chairs next to Franzen to express support to the committee for the Southwest line.

Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens spoke of light rail as a critical part in combating congestion — commuters from St. Cloud, Red Wing, all over filter into the city, heading for jobs at the Golden Triangle Business Park and elsewhere, she said.

Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider spoke of the light rail line stitching together transit in the city — creating transit hubs at the stations.

Edina Mayor James Hovland sold Southwest Light Rail as a golden opportunity.

“This is bargain basement time for the State Legislature,” Hovland said of the breakdown in capital cost.

The state would pay 10 percent. The federal government would pay 90.

Light rail, Hovland argued, is part of a transit mix the Millennium Generation, people who want to own a single car, look to in choosing where to live.

The Twin Cities is flagging in terms of attracting the 25 to 34-year-old group of young people vital to the economic success of a region.

“We’re a net loser of 25 to 34-year-olds,” he said.

Republicans offered a number of pointed questions.

“The $675 million doesn’t grow on trees,” Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said of potential Federal Transit Administration New Starts capital funding — the feds potentially would pick up half of construction costs.

But federal government is broke, Osmek argued.

Moreover, federal dollars are taxpayer dollars, he said.

They don’t fall to earth from outer space.

Southwest supporters countered that the New Start dollars were going to be spent somewhere, and should be spent here.

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, repeatedly questioned Franzen and witnesses about their support for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed quarter-cent, metro-wide sales tax increase for transit.

A TwinWest Chamber of Commerce official indicated the chamber took no position on it.

Franzen, when the discussion turned to paying for operating expenses of the line, indicated a willingness to explore various options.

Currently some state general fund dollars would be used to pay for the operation of the line, a Met Council official explained.

Taking general fund dollars meant that other areas of state funding would have a smaller pool to draw from, Pederson said.

The administration heralds its propose transit tax increase as paying for the construction and operating cost of Southwest Light Rail, among other transit benefits.

The committee placed Franzen’s bills, and a Southwest bonding bill by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, aside for possible inclusion in a larger bill.

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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