Column: Enough debate, cancel Southwest Light Rail project

Cindy Pugh
Cindy Pugh

Rep. Cindy Pugh
Guest Columnist

Our metro region has been debating the Southwest Light Rail project for years. I want to bring you up to date on the status of the project and why SWLRT should be canceled.

SWLRT began as a “congestion relief” project but somewhere along the way, this project turned into what is called “Transit Oriented Development.” That is because we just don’t have the population density to justify or support light rail like Chicago or New York.

The Met Council is the regional operator of transit. Its members are all appointed by the governor; none are directly accountable to voters, or even to elected officials. The council is empowered to plan, fund and own the transit it operates.

To deal with the density problem, the Met Council added taxpayer subsidized housing and businesses along the rail lines to increase ridership. It is the “build it and they will come” model. But even if tens of thousands of new neighbors will move from the city or outstate to the suburbs, the ridership numbers still be too low.

Planners want light rail “development” to solve a lot of problems: affordable housing, the achievement gap and even global warming! SWLRT is not even “green.” In fact, it would add 2,000 new metric tons of greenhouse gases to the air!

And somewhere along the way, congestion relief fell off the list as a major goal.

Yet the idea for SWLRT has never been seriously re-considered, even after the cost jumped from $1.2 billion to an estimated $1.89 billion. That is because there were too many vested business interests right from the start, and average citizens were sold repeatedly on the mythical benefits of light rail.

And what about the claim that LRT will bring “economic development?” This claim is misleading; that development will either be subsidized by tax dollars or would have taken place anyway.

There is good news, however. The Federal Transit Administration, which oversees grants for LRT, recently announced that it does not support funding new starts like SWLRT. The transit administration has been concerned about the low ridership and overly-optimistic estimates for farebox recovery. In other words, this train will not even come close to paying its way, and the subsidy needed from taxpayers is $20 million or more a year.

The transit administration is concerned about declining federal transportation funds and the growing federal deficit. If Congress agrees with the transit administration, SWLRT will not get funding.

The Minnesota Legislature, too, has withdrawn its support for any additional LRT projects including SWLRT. We do, however, want Minnesota to get our fair share of federal transit dollars so we are working with Congress to fix that. We need good transit and good roads, not boondoggles.
In response, Hennepin County is seriously considering raising its sales tax to support transit funding.

That means $125 million a year more from taxpayers to support poorly planned transit that won’t relieve congestion or improve roads.

An increase in the sales tax will hammer our region: Minnesota already has the 17th highest combined state and local sales tax in the country at 7.30 percent.

On top of that, the Met Council is planning to borrow the money to build the project with an obscure financing tool that conveniently avoids a taxpayer referendum, even though the council promised that it would not proceed without legislative support.

Minnesota is on the verge of a transportation revolution (think Uber, self-driving cars, “smart” express buses). We have debated SWLRT enough. Now it is time to get focused on the future with transportation ideas that deliver for the metro.

Representative Cindy Pugh, R-Chanhassen, represents House District 33B.