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Metro tax hike proposed to fund Southwest light-rail line

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The Star Tribune reports that major developments are expected this week in the controversial Southwest light-rail line. The $1.5 billion project is scheduled to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie by 2018.

The agency overseeing the project, the Metropolitan Council, needs to show the federal government by fall that it can raise the money to qualify for matching federal funds.

The legislature didn't put Southwest light rail in its bonding bill. So far, the state has approved just $44 million for the project, far short of the $155 million, or 10 percent that proponents expected.

The project has also been delayed by opposition from neighborhood groups concerned about the impact of various siting proposals. Some St. Louis Park residents object to rerouting freight trains there to make room for the light-rail line. There is also concern about impact on the Kenilworth recreational corridor. Residents in southwest Minneapolis say a light-rail line would destroy homes and park lands, and have other negative environmental effects.

One proposal calls for the line to be buried in a tunnel under a channel linking Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. A Met Council plan calls for less expensive tunnels on either side of the channel with the light-rail trains rising to cross a bridge over the water.

Reports on the controversies are expected in the coming week. Mayor Betsy Hodges, for one, said she is waiting for more information before weighing in.

But proponents are floating the idea of a metro sales tax for transit.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Senate transportation committee, suggest raising $200 million by increasing the quarter-cent metro transit sales tax to three quarters of a cent.

The Met Council may also issue its own bonds to borrow the necessary money — maybe in partnership with Hennepin County. It could use future motor vehicle sales tax money to pay off the loans.

“The most successful strategy would be to have the transit sales tax passed, but this is kind of a backup in case that doesn't happen,” said Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh.

A local funding mechanism needs to be in place by next fall if the Southwest project is to qualify for matching funds from the 2016 federal budget. It is one of seven light-rail proposals to have gotten initial green lights from the Federal Transit Administration

The Met Council says the 15.8-mile route would serve 31,000 households and 60,000 people. Seventeen stations are proposed to serve the cities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, in addition to Minneapolis.

The Southwest Line would connect near Target Field to the a Northstar commuter rail line, the Hiawatha Blue Line and the Green Line, which is set to be operational in June 2014.

The Met Council plans to begin construction in 2015. It says delays would add about $50 million a year to the project price tag, they say.

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