A Lifeline for Southwest Light Rail

Commentary by Eliot Seide

Workday Minnesota - Published August 22, 2016

A dispute over light rail put the brakes on a special session last week.  The deadlock ends hopes for middle-class tax relief and millions of dollars in construction projects that would benefit all Minnesotans.  This impasse can be blamed on Republican legislators who hate trains and don’t care about the metro area.        

AFSCME urges local government partners to secure funding to keep Southwest light rail on track, even without Republican support for the remaining $135 million of the state’s share.  It matters to working people who depend on transit to get to work and school.  It matters to union construction workers who build light rail.  It matters to the largest employers headquartered in Minnesota.  It matters to the economic well-being of our region and our entire state.    

Governor Mark Dayton and the DFL Senate majority have pushed hard for a way to fund the Southwest line, which would extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.  Democrats say it’s a metro service that will be paid for by metro taxpayers who support the line. 

House Republicans were not asked to dedicate state tax dollars to Southwest.  Supporters sought either a higher metro-only sales tax for transit, a higher debt ceiling for Hennepin County to borrow for the project, or a boost in Metro Transit operating funds so that Met Council could do the borrowing.

GOP House Speaker Kurt Daubt calls Southwest a “boondoggle project” that “lacks public support.”  His team’s stiff opposition is politically motivated with all 201 seats on the November ballot.  Republicans are struggling to hold control of the House by inflaming opposition to light rail among their voters in Greater Minnesota.  Their rhetoric is divisive and misleading.

Intelligent people can make up their own minds, but Republican train haters can’t make up their own facts.  Here’s the truth about light rail. 

Fact: Failure to provide the remaining $135 million of the state/local match means Minnesota will lose $928.5 million in federal funds for the Southwest line.  If we don’t come up with a 10 percent match by Sept. 2, the federal dollars will be invested in another transit system, in another state.

Fact: Federal transit dollars cannot be used for roads or highways.  Republicans claim they could use the money to “repave six lanes on every interstate in Minnesota.”  That’s false and they know it.     

Fact: Greater Minnesota counties won’t pay a dime for Southwest light rail.  Metro counties can pay for it via an optional sales tax.  

Fact: Light rail preserves road funding for Greater Minnesota.  If light rail isn’t built, metro highways will have to be expanded.  As metro highway needs increase, road demands in Greater Minnesota will be crowded out. 

Fact: Motorists benefit from light rail.  Every time a three-car light rail train is loaded, 600 autos are taken off the highways.  That relieves traffic congestion. 

Fact: Republican resistance is driving up the cost of Southwest.  The cost of delay is $1 million a week.

Fact: 7,500 union construction workers will help build the Southwest line – as did workers from 61 of Minnesota’s 87 counties when the initial Green Line was built; the project’s $350 million payroll will boost Main Street economies across the state.

Fact: 80 percent of public transit riders are commuting to work or school, and both are linked to a person’s long-term health outcomes and success in life.

Fact: Transit ridership is growing and young people want it.  In 2015, there were 99 million rides across the Metro Transit system.  By 2040, our metro area is expected to add 750,000 more people.  Much of the growth will come from seniors, millennials and people of color – all of these demographic groups are more likely to use transit.

Fact: Workers can save up to $10,000 a year if they walk, bike or ride transit to work – instead of driving alone.  Unfortunately, only 10 percent of the jobs in the metro area are easy to get to by bus or train.  Southwest light rail will expand access to 210,000 jobs when the line opens for passenger service in 2021.   

Fact: Better transit service isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.  It’s key for competitiveness and quality of life in a region that is already experiencing a worker shortage and choking on rush-hour congestion.

Fact: A dozen of Minnesota’s top employers support investment in light rail, including the CEOs of Allina Health, Best Buy, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, Ecolab, General Mills, Land O’Lakes, Mortenson Construction, Polaris, Target, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, and Xcel Energy.    

Workers know the truth about transit.  We ride it, operate it, build it and benefit from it.  We won’t let Republicans put the brakes on our trains.  We support a lifeline for Southwest light rail. 

Eliot Seide is executive director of AFSCME Council 5, a union of 43,000 workers throughout Minnesota.