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Guest Editorial: Let the metro pay for its own light rail

In your Aug. 25, 2016, article "Area Republicans upset over lack of special session," the three GOP lawmakers you quoted made factually incorrect and misleading statements about the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) project, which was one point of con...

In your Aug. 25, 2016, article "Area Republicans upset over lack of special session," the three GOP lawmakers you quoted made factually incorrect and misleading statements about the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) project, which was one point of contention in failed negotiations on a special session.

Aitkin Rep. Dale Lueck claims that Gov. Mark Dayton made a "last minute demand for state taxpayers to fund the Southwest Light Rail project." The governor pushed for that project the entire legislative session and made no secret of the fact that it was an integral part of his statewide transportation plan. The Minnesota Senate passed Southwest Light Rail three times, but the House did not act on it.

The project needs $144.5 million in local funding to leverage almost a billion dollars in federal support for the project. The Metropolitan Council, which is building the line, was asking for legislative authority for the money to be raised in the metro area with a local sales tax. There was no request for an appropriation of state dollars and this project was not included in any version of the state bonding bill.

GOP critics of light rail often claim that the money could be better spent on roads. However, the 50 percent federal funding for the project is dedicated specifically to transit projects. The local matching dollars come mostly from special funds raised by metro area counties that are specifically dedicated to transit. This project simply does not compete with funding for roads.

A large part of the plan to keep the SWLRT project alive uses money in coming years that are allocated for transit operations, with metro-area counties filling in the rest. This ultimately isn't a good option - we should be investing in improving and advancing our transit network, rather than finding ways to fill a funding gap created by the legislature's inaction.

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But the alternative is to abandon the $140 million already invested in the design and engineering for Southwest and lose the entire project. This means a loss of huge benefits for the people along the line, as well as the entire state.

If it is built, the Southwest Light Rail project will draw construction workers from all over the state and spur billions in new development. Construction of the Green Line, between Saint Paul and Minneapolis, drew workers from 60 of Minnesota's 87 counties, and has since spurred $4.2 billion in new development along the line. Growth on that scale draws contractors and workers from across the state.

A good transit system in a major metropolitan area stimulates economic growth. This is important outside of the metro region because, according to a 2014 report by the House Research Department, the seven-county metro region generates more tax revenue than the other 80 Minnesota counties combined.

SWLRT enjoys broad support from the communities along the line, as well the chambers and businesses of our state, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small locally owned businesses. I urge the Minnesota Legislature to join them in that support in 2017 and pledge to invest in this and other transit projects critical to our state's future.

Lona Schreiber is chair of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee. She represented Minnesota House District 5B from 1979-88.

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