Dayton plans Thursday meeting on SWLRT funding

Gathering of local leaders follows impasse that dashed special session hopes

In a meeting framed as a last-ditch effort to keep the Southwest Light Rail Project on track, Gov. Mark Dayton plans to convene state and local leaders Thursday to discuss options for funding the line.

Supporter’s hopes that the state’s 10-percent funding commitment to the project would be finalized in a special session were dashed when Dayton announced Aug. 18 he would not be calling lawmakers back to the Capitol. Dayton said he, House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) were at an impasse after months of negotiations.

Daudt’s opposition to the $1.86-billion extension of the Green Line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie was a significant roadblock in the talks.

The invitation to tomorrow’s meeting from the governor’s office noted: “SWLRT is nearing a critical federal funding deadline that will determine if the project can move forward, or if the Met Council will have to shelve the project indefinitely.”

The Metropolitan Council is leading the project locally, and for years it has emphasized the importance of keeping the project on schedule to hit critical federal deadlines. About 20 rail transit projects in development across the country are in a queue for Federal Transit Administration grants through the agency’s New Starts program, and a delay in securing local funding commitments could cause SWLRT to lose its place in line, the Met Council has repeatedly warned.

Federal funds are expected to cover half of all project costs, and project staffers are nearing the point when they can lock-in the project budget and apply for a funding agreement with the Federal Transit

In a written statement provided by a spokesperson, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said he was “looking forward” to tomorrow’s discussion.

“I am pleased Governor Dayton is bringing together local elected officials, state lawmakers, and other members of the community for this discussion,” Duininck said. “The practical matter is that we need a decision by August 31. Without local funding commitments by then, we will be forced to begin shutting down the office and project permanently.”

The statement noted about 45 staffers would be laid-off if the project office shut down. The project office runs out of cash to continue operations Sept. 30, and the cost of delays beyond that date is estimated at $1 million per week.

The Met Council statement also said a “major engineering contractor” had taken staff members off of the project during the delay and would “permanently reassign” them if funding commitments weren’t finalized by Aug. 31. It did not name the contractor.

The governor’s invitation went to legislative caucus leaders, members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board — a five-county collaborative that directs metro tax dollars to transit projects — business leaders and members of the public. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m.–3:30 p.m. in the Skjedstad Room at the Minnesota Department of Revenue, 600 Robert St. N., St. Paul.