Light Rail debate raging again at Capitol

The debate over the Southwest Light Rail Transit line is roaring again at the Capitol.

A pair of bills from Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, debated Tuesday in separate committees, would restrict the use of public money for construction or operation of any new rail transit lines without explicit legislative approval.

"If we had had this law in place before we started all of the spending, we wouldn't have problems today," said Osmek.

One approved on a 6-4 vote by the Senate Local Government Committee would affect lines proposed for the Twin Cities area and around fast-growing Rochester.

Advocates for the nearly $1.9 billion Southwest line said the Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie project would be in jeopardy if the Legislature passes the bills, which cover not only state dollars but also money put forward by cities, counties and special authorities such as the Metropolitan Council.

Met Council lobbyist Judd Schetnan said funding for the Southwest line is arranged and construction is set to begin soon.

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"We're at the point now where we're hoping to be constructing the Southwest line late summer. And what this bill does is stop all of that. It stops the city work. It stops the municipal consent work," Schetnan said. "We've had municipal consent again twice from all of the cities and counties along that line, and this stops it right in its tracks, to pardon the pun."

The other bill would bar use of state dollars toward operation of a new line. After fares are factored in, the state now picks up half the operation costs for existing lines.

Osmek said the state share of operating costs makes it important that the Legislature have direct input.

"The fact of the matter is if we're going to commit the state's taxpayers to 20 or 30 million dollars on top of what we currently spend in operating costs for our current light rail structure, shouldn't we have a say from a taxpayers point of view?" Osmek said in the local government committee. "That's all I'm saying with this bill."

The Southwest debate contributed to the breakdown of a transportation and general construction bill last year. Project supporters cobbled together other funds to keep the planned line moving forward.