WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota looking to spend federal dollars on transportation promised by the Obama administration may have to find a new funding source.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could halt future transportation projects in the state according to a Washington Post article.
As proposed, the President’s budget cuts $2.4 billion from the entire Transportation Department in Washington for a total of 13 percent. Part of the cuts include new start projects, which would only receive federal funding if they obtained “full funding grant agreements” within formal federal commitments.
Two Minnesota projects, Minneapolis Light Rail – Blue Line and Minneapolis Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) – are included in the proposed budget cuts. Both lines are classified as “NSE” or “New Start Engineering” by the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA).
The blue line extension plan would extend the light rail from Target Field to Brooklyn Park with stops in Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, and Crystal. SWLRT would serve Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, and Eden Prairie.
The fight for SWLRT has been ongoing between Republicans and Democrats in St. Paul. Republicans have fought to shut down SWLRT with Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound) calling it, “the gift that keeps on taxing.” Democrats look at the expansion of light rail as a way to decrease road congestion and reduce the state’s carbon footprint.
Both light rail plans, originally proposed by the Met Council, come with a hefty price tag. According to reports compiled by the FTA, the blue line extension would cost over $1.5 billion and SWLRT would cost $1.9 billion. The Met Council applied for “Section 5309 New Start Share” grants for each project. The federal government under former President Barack Obama granted both requests, provisionally covering approximately 49.5 percent of both projects. The grant would give Minnesota $753 million for the blue line extension and $929 million for SWLRT.
Republicans looking to halt SWLRT sought to shift federal funding to other local projects. As reported by Alpha News, Osmek told reporters:
“There’s a new day in Washington D.C. There has already been discussion at the Federal level. I’ve seen some commentary on it that the new FTA wants to go to block grants, rather than creating extortion tactics. This is all part of the local control the Trump administration has been touting from the time that they got there.”
However, the FTA quickly quieted talk of shifting funds stating, “by law, [Capital Investment Grant] funding may be used only on major transit capital projects. It may not be used for roads, bridges, or other transportation projects.”
However, it hasn’t stopped local Republicans from seeking the shift in funding. Osmek told Alpha News, “Just because something isn’t “legal” now should never preclude you from asking, or challenging what is “legal” now. Why can’t we ask for Minnesota to be the first to receive a block grant instead of being forced into a light rail system that doesn’t fit Minnesota’s future?”
An FTA official, who spoke on anonymity tells Alpha News, “The President’s FY 2018 Budget Blueprint limits funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only. The U.S. DOT will work with the President and his Infrastructure Task Force to finalize the details of the complete FY 2018 President’s budget that is expected to be submitted to Congress in May.”
In the wake of Minnesota potentially losing the $1.5 billion federal funding, Minnesota Republicans refuse to give up. Osmek tells Alpha News, “Assuming this is enacted, this change in policy is a major victory for common sense in Washington and a huge win for Minnesotans. Light rail in our state is not a logical option, based on an objective review of the costs versus the benefits. Now is the time for a policy change, empowering states (using block grants) to make the choices that best suit individual states…not what Washington thinks we should do.”
The Senate DFL Caucus did not return a request for comment in time for publication.