Poll finds increased support for Southwest LRT
Support for Southwest Light Rail transit has increased significantly in the last year, according to a new poll.
The survey commissioned by the Minneapolis, St. Paul and TwinWest chambers of commerce found that 75 percent of metro residents support state funding for the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis.
That is up from 64 percent of metro residents responding that they supported the line in a 2012 conducted by the same firm, Public Opinion Strategies along with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates.
Statewide, the numbers also increased, from 61 percent supporting state funding for the line last year to 70 percent of those surveyed saying they supported state funding this year.
Researchers last year surveyed 700 voters in Minnesota, including 400 from the seven-county metro area between Jan. 14-17, 2012. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent with a metro region margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
This year, the researchers surveyed the same number of voters statewide and in the metro Jan. 6-8, 2013. The poll has the same margins of error as the 2012 poll.
According to the survey reports, Public Opinion Strategies leans Republican while Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates leans Democratic. The companies combined were chosen to provide a bipartisan research team.
Polls in both years also asked respondents about transit in general. Asked whether Minnesota would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system, such as rail and buses, 79 percent statewide answered “yes” this year compared to 76 percent last year. Meanwhile, 66 percent of Minnesotans polled said they would like to use public transportation in general more often, down from 69 percent last year.
The movement in both of the general transit questions is within the margin of error, but the change in response relating to the Southwest Light Rail Line question moved considerably outside the margin of error.
Judy Johnson, TwinWest’s director of government affairs, said she attributes the change to heightened awareness of the proposed line in the media and in political campaigns.
“It’s a common-sense issue for a lot of people, and the numbers popped up,” Johnson said.
She said if she were to attempt to read the minds of those surveyed, she would anticipate people may have favored the line because state funding would leverage millions of dollars in federal funding.
The light rail question this year asked, “The Twin Cities currently has one operating light rail line and a second line, between Minneapolis and St. Paul, is under construction. In order to move forward with the next planned extension to the system – the Southwest Light Rail Line that would extend from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie – the state would dedicate $118 million in order to secure $625 million in federal matching funds. Do you support or oppose dedicating these funds?”
In addition to the state government’s share of the line cost, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority would kick in $125 million. A transit sales tax in the metropolitan area would cover about 30 percent of costs for the $1.25 billion line. The survey did not mention the other funding sources.
Johnson said she doubted voters outside the metro would be influenced in their support for the state funding for the project if they knew about the regional transit tax and county funds, though.
“I don’t know that Greater Minnesota really cares if we’re taxing ourselves down here,” Johnson said.
Within the metro, Johnson said she believed the overall high level of support would not have wavered much given the overall support for transit initiatives the poll found.
“People in general believe good transportation options are good for all kinds of reasons,” Johnson said.
Last year, the poll asked people whether they supported a lesser amount of state funding, the $25 million in state bonding funds Gov. Mark Dayton had proposed be allocated to the project.
The Legislature declined to allocate the $25 million for the line last year, but provided funds to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to award for various projects around the state. The department did not select Southwest Light Rail Transit as a grant winner, but Dayton overruled the department and provided $2 million for the line.
The $118 million referred to in the 2013 poll would complete the state portion of a total of $125 million, or 10 percent of the total project cost, thanks to past state funding for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.
The researchers concluded in their 2013 poll report, “This survey clearly shows that Minnesotans believe the best path for reducing traffic congestion lies with improving and expanding the state’s public transit system. That’s why we see strong voter support for dedicating state funds to extend the Southwest Light Rail Line and for increasing the sales tax in the metro region to fund public transit improvements. Voters in every corner of the state – and especially those in the metro region – see the importance of having a long-term public transit funding plan in place to protect their quality of life and boost the state’s economy and jobs outlook.”
The Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers drove the funding of the transportation poll while TwinWest was part of the overall effort, Johnson said. All three chambers have voiced support for the Southwest Light Rail Line, arguing that it would accommodate a growth in jobs along the Southwest and connecting Central Corridor light rail routes.
Polling on positions the chambers have supported is common, Johnson said.
“When you get numbers like this, it’s helpful to share at the Capitol and certainly with people here in our own backyard,” Johnson said.
She has joined other transit supporters in the business community in testifying at committee meetings at the Capitol.
Johnson stressed the ability of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line to connect people with jobs during a Jan. 30 joint meeting of the Minnesota House transportation and finance committees.
“Neither more roads nor more buses work in this case,” her presentation materials state.
Comcast’s Customer Loyalty Center in Minnetonka, for example “could go anywhere in the country” and its “workforce needs transit,” Johnson argued. Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group is another major employer whose workers would benefit from the line.
The chambers of commerce commissioning the poll support a broader transportation plan beyond the Southwest Light Rail Transit plan, Johnson said at the hearing. She also pointed to the poll results in making her case.
The Jan. 30 hearing focused on recommendations relating to a regional transit system by the Governor’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee.
“With Twinwest, Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s not just about Southwest but about a comprehensive system,” Johnson said. “It’s to be bigger than just adding a line at a time or adding a bus line at a time, or a road segment at a time. It’s a regional thing and it’s about thinking together as a region and not west versus east versus suburbs.”
She added, “I think in the let’s-look-at-the-big -picture view, it’s OK for people to say what is in it for us? That’s OK. But I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’s saying the whole area doesn’t need a better, sustainable transportation system in place. That we all agree on for sure.”