Transportation projects are priority for Gov. Dayton

Central Corridor LRT
With Central Corridor construction finishing up for the winter, University Avenue opened to two lanes of traffic traveling both east and west in early December, 2011. This photo was made along University Avenue just west of Fairview Avenue.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The governor's wish list for transportation in the legislative session includes money for a third light rail line, bridge repair, and transit in greater Minnesota. But Republican transportation leaders have different priorities.

Gov. Mark Dayton's says his $775 million bonding proposal would create more than 21,000 jobs. His proposal would finance projects through the sale of state-backed bonds repaid with interest over 20 years.

One of the largest allocations would pay for the expansion of light rail in the Twin Cities metro area. The governor wants the Legislature to approve $25 million for the $1.2 billion, Southwest Corridor LRT, a 15-mile segment which would link Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. This would be the Twin Cities' third light rail line, after Hiawatha and Central Corridor, which is currently under construction.

Bonding money is critical for moving the project forward into preliminary engineering, said Sue Haigh, chair of the Met Council, which oversees the project.

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"It not only produces jobs for the people who build the line, but this line in particular connects people to their work," Haigh said.

"There are 200,000 jobs along the Southwest LRT corridor, so it's a key commitment of the state to support those businesses who are trying to get their employees to work."

The project has the support of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and TwinWest chambers of commerce.

But Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, who chairs the House Transportation committee, isn't convinced the state should make the Southwest LRT a priority.

"If I had to pick and choose, I think we'd probably serve the existing stuff we have — it's already here. If we are going to run it then let's make it as good as we can."

Before supporting the Southwest Corridor light rail project, Beard said he will need further information on how the state will pay for future train operations.

Met Council officials say operation and maintenance costs are estimated around $45 million by 2028. Part of that cost would be paid for by fares and federal funds. The remainder would come from the state and from a metro sales tax dedicated to transit.

Beard said he is instead more open to funding the downtown Minneapolis Interchange project — a proposed transit hub near Target Field that connects existing and future train lines, buses and bikeways. The state should fund the Interchange this session, said the lead Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

"Any delay means it's going to take that much longer to get the project up and rolling and we don't want to delay job creation and we don't want to delay any important transportation infrastructure for our region," Hornstein said.

The project recently received a boost of $10 million in federal grants. Advocates say it also needs local funding to continue. But Dayton's recommendations did not include money for the Interchange.

The governor's proposal includes $10 million for transit facilities in Mankato, Duluth and St. Cloud, and $2.5 million to upgrade railroad crossings and $3 million for state ports. Dayton also wants $25 million for the Local Bridge Replacement Program. The funding is expected to pay for work on more than 80 of the state's 960 bridges identified as needing repair.

"From our perspective, it's a little light on roads and bridges," said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. She's calling for even more money to fix the state's crumbling bridges and repair roads in the bonding bill. Her group estimates the total unmet transportation needs in the state at about $1.5 billion each year for the next 20 years.

"This is one area where we have many, many projects around the state that really could be going very quickly and get people back to work in construction very quickly if those resources are directed to those kinds of projects," Donahoe said.

MnDOT estimates the number of state highway miles in poor condition will go from about 600 to 1,600 miles by 2018. The agency estimates the gap between investment need and projected revenues at almost $50 billion over the next 20 years.

While Republican leaders have expressed support for infrastructure projects, they've also said the governor's borrowing proposal is too big. Lawmakers plan hearings on transportation projects, but will wait until the February budget forecast is out before making any recommendations.