Dayton backs Southwest light rail rescue plan

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The agency that operates the Twin Cities mass transit system will move ahead with a new financing plan for the imperiled Southwest Corridor light rail project, bypassing the Legislature for now given deep-rooted Republican resistance to the route.

Adam Duininck, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, will seek approval as early as next week to committing the board to more than $90 million in borrowing.

Additionally, the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and the Counties Transportation Improvement Boards would have to consent to $20.5 million each in additional contributions.

The three sources would cover the remaining local share needed to unlock federal money toward half of the $1.8 billion line.

"I want to be very clear about this: These are bad options," Duininck said. "If there is not a state solution that occurs at the legislative level, the only options available to us are bad options. There are challenges for our agency and certainly it is a question of going back to funders who have already given a lot to this project."

The alternative, he said, is to wind the project down beginning next week because it would run out of cash by October and the federal money would be in jeopardy.

Gov. Mark Dayton blessed the arrangement after a nearly three hour forum he convened to discuss the 14-mile line that would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

"I believe this project is in the best interest of the metropolitan region, I believe it is in the best interest of Minnesota, and I believe it is very important that it go forward," Dayton said.

All three partners in the latest funding equation would have to hold hearings and approve the added spending. The goal is to have that happen within days.

There were still unanswered questions about the financing model, which was developed during intense private discussions this week. One concern is whether ongoing litigation over the Southwest line could make the Met Council borrowing plan hard to pull off.

Republican legislators who attended the forum criticized the move as a power play. State Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, said lawmakers were under the belief the Met Council wouldn't go this route.

"I think that we are visiting and witnessing an end-run on the legislative process," Albright said.

Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said much of the maneuvering around Southwest  light rail has been questionable.

"We have deep concerns. We feel the process has been flawed," she said. "We feel that the project, at the exorbitant cost that it is, is one that merits a lot of questions."

The envisioned borrowing, through a mechanism known as certificates of participation, wouldn't formally require the Met Council to issue the debt until next summer.

That would leave open the possibility the 2017 Legislature could revisit the funding question. But it would tie up the funds because the Met Council wouldn't be able to allocate the anticipated debt costs toward other projects.

The Southwest issue was among the major obstacles to a special session where the Legislature would also take up packages for tax relief and general construction borrowing. Both fell short of becoming law during the Legislature's regular session.

The forum itself covered familiar ground on both sides of the light rail controversy.

Opponents of the line highlighted their objection to both the route through the Chain of Lakes, the cost and the elevation of fixed rail over more flexible bus routes. Supporters stressed that Southwest would connect people on both ends of the line with employment and alleviate some car congestion.

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