Local Leaders React to DEED’s Rejection of Southwest Light Rail
The project tied for the lowest score among 37 applicants competing for $47.5 million in bonding money.
Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-District 46A) didn’t mask his thoughts when news came down that the Southwest Light Rail Transit project had come in behind a new minor league ballpark in St. Paul, a wastewater project in Litchfield and a downtown development initiative in Duluth that includes a new parking ramp.
Winkler took to Twitter to express his frustration, firing off a series of tweets Tuesday criticizing the Department of Employment and Economic Development:
- “Someone at DEED should be fired if they think a Saints Ballpark creates more jobs or has a bigger regional impact than a new LRT line. #OK.”
- “DEED rankings are absurd--shows no knowledge of economics or total disregard of it.”
- “MN needs a plan for economic prosperity involving innovation, education and greater opportunity, not ballparks and stadiums.”
- “Given pool of money to invest in infrastructure and growth, @PositivelyMN (DEED) picks ballpark and athletic fields. Win for sod industry.”
Other west metro leaders were more tactful, but the news remained a downer for many supporters who’ve seen Southwest LRT repeatedly fail to secure funding.
The $14 million request tied for last place among the 37 projects that applied for a piece of the $47.5 million available in bonding money. It received just 24 points out of a possible 100. Only a $1.3 million Carver housing infrastructure project scored as low.
(DEED also removed 53 applicants during initial screening and did not score those.)
Projects were scored on readiness, job creation, investment and leverage potential, regional impact and “other public benefits—with Southwest near the bottom in every category.
"I would say we're both surprised and disappointed that the evaluation was as low as it was," Met Council chairwoman Sue Haigh told the Pioneer Press. "It's a project that is really critical to job growth in the region ... and has strong support from the business community."
Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-District 46) said Southwest likely didn’t lend itself as well to the criteria established for this pot of money. He thinks DEED was looking for projects that would have immediate effects.
Southwest received just seven out of 25 points in the project readiness category, and engineering is just beginning. By contrast, the St. Paul stadium received 22 points.
“You wouldn’t see an immediate return in terms of jobs and money flowing back into the economy—as you would with the Saints stadium,” Latz said.
Rep. Steve Simon also acknowledged that the projects that scored highest seem to be "shovel ready." He said it's a good sign that SW LRT was even among those projects that were scored, adding that regional light rail might score higher in coming years as plans become more concrete.
"I'm an optimist about all this," he said. "We're in the hunt, we're in the race ... That's good news."
Judy Johnson, the government affairs director at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, said her organization knew the process was going to be competitive because there were several projects seeking funding from a limited pot of money.
But TwinWest—which has been rallying support for Southwest LRT with the Edina, Eden Prairie, Minneapolis Regional and St. Paul Area chambers—still thinks there is a strong business case to be made for the project, she said.
“From the chamber’s point of view, we’re just going to continue educating our candidates and legislators and just march forward with getting funding in the next session,” Johnson said.
Not all of those candidates are upset about the project’s failure, though.
“What’s the slogan? Twenty people ride, 200 people pay,” said David Arvidson, the Republican challenger for House District 46B. “It just has to pay for itself.”
Not that Arvidson was any happier with some of the highest-ranked projects, such as the St. Paul minor league stadium. He said voters need to stop letting the government use public funds to prop up private projects. Public infrastructure projects are better, but even then Arvidson said voters should be asking whether the state should be involved—or whether the city or county could take care of it.
DEED’s scores are not the final word on the funding allocations. Gov. Mark Dayton will review the scores and decide which projects get money.
If Southwest still doesn’t receive funding, Latz plans to sponsor a bill in the next legislative session to provide the money. While the project may have not fit the narrow goals of the DEED money, it’s a good fit for a traditional bonding proposal, he said.
“It’s a real business issue. It’s not, I think, a political spectrum issue. It’s a party issue,” Latz said. “The foundation is there. We just have to get past the partisan politics to make it happen.”
Simon also said he would support bonding bill dollars getting funneled toward light rail. Whether this actually happens, the legislator said, hinges on who's in control of various transportation committees when the Legislature convenes next year.
"I think a lot depends on the outcome of the election," Simon said.
Scores for Metro-Area Projects
|St. Paul||St. Paul regional ballpark (Saints)||$27 million||77|
|Minneapolis School District No. 1||Update athletic facilities||$2.8 million||65|
|Maple Plain||Street, sewer and water line projects||$930,500||58|
|Maplewood||East metro public safety center||$1.3 million||49|
|Corcoran||Water tower construction||$1.1 million||40|
|Bloomington||Bloomington central station public improvements||$1.4 million||33|
|Oak Park Heights||Redevelopment area||$1.4 million||32|
|Three Rivers Park District||Cross-country trail improvements in Bloomington||$3.7 million||30|
|Carver County CDA||Infrastructure for apartments in Waconia||$2 million||29|
|Dakota County||Trails and visitors center||$3 million||29|
|Carver County CDA||Infrastructure for housing in the City of Carver||$1.3 million||24|
|Metropolitan Council||Southwest Light Rail Transit line||$14 million||24|