Resolution would shift light rail funds to roads and bridges

Published 9:58 am Tuesday, February 21, 2017

ST. PAUL — Republican lawmakers in Minnesota said Monday they would try to shift federal funding away from a planned light-rail route between Minneapolis and its southwestern suburbs and spend it instead on general road and bridge repair.

GOP legislators have long sought to block planning and funding for light-rail projects, saying they put metro-area priorities above rural Minnesota. The legislation would move $900 million in federal money away from the roughly $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s appointed Metropolitan Council received much of the blame for issues surrounding the project and council officials pushed back against Republican lawmakers’ claims that the group ignored the Legislature and the public when seeking to move the project forward.

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“We have an unelected body that is not accountable to any other elected official, save one,” said Republican Rep. Linda Runbeck, of Circle Pines, calling the light-rail “a project that has failed on so many counts to be developed in a thorough, neutral, public way.”

Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck refuted those claims, pointing to about 180 meetings that have been held since 2008 to gather public feedback on the project. “It is unfortunate that a lot of the information used is incorrect,” he said.

A press release from the Metropolitan Council said the Legislature appropriated project development funds in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

As of Monday afternoon, five Republican bills were set to be heard in committee concerning either the Metropolitan Council or transit services.

Republicans also see the resolution as an opportunity to sock away funds for a transportation package later this session — a top priority that has eluded lawmakers for years.

Sen. David Osmek said he hopes President Donald Trump’s administration would approve the transfer, citing the government’s desire to shift toward block grant funding.

But Duininck said the chance of the funds being moved to grants for roads and bridges is slim because the awarded money is a part of a federal program meant to specifically fund rail projects. If the Legislature goes forward with the resolution, he said he fears the state will lose the money all together.