By Bill Hudson

HOPKINS, Minn. (WCCO) – Sen. Al Franken has a stern warning for Minnesota lawmakers – act by the end of the legislative session in May or risk losing out on $895 million in federal transportation funding.

The money would help build the proposed $1.79 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

But to qualify for the federal funding, the state has to pony up its share of the cost — about $135 million.

It’s without doubt the most controversial transportation project in the state. The nearly 15-mile extension of the Green Line would connect the southwest suburbs to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But before SWLRT can be built, it needs a ton of funding from local, state and federal agencies.

Local governments have already pledged $735 million, and the federal government will pay half the cost, or $895 million. But that assistance comes with a huge string attached – the state of Minnesota must agree to a $135 million piece of the pie.

“If we’re going to be competitive with other metro areas around the country, this is what we have to do,” Franken said.

The senator is reminding state lawmakers that the funding package is at risk.

He also wants to assure skeptics that the project won’t steal money from other vital highway needs, such as infrastructure improvements to highways and bridges.

“This doesn’t in any way take money from that would go to highways and bridges,” Franken said.

Already, new developments are popping up along the corridor, as cities such as Hopkins set their sights on attracting a younger, more diverse workforce.

“We’re finding that young people, one of the reasons they choose to locate or take a job in a metro area is access to transit systems,” Hopkins Mayor Molly Cummins pointed out.

However, Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann says support for the SWLRT is evenly split among those he polled in his district.

Hann, of Eden Prairie, remains unconvinced that the threat Franken refers to will mean federal funding goes away.

“The point is this is not money from Mars,” Hann said. “Whether it is state or federal funding, the question is: Should the Minnesota taxpayers fund this project?”

The funding proposal, including a half-cent sales tax imposed in the seven-county metropolitan area, is currently in limbo in the transportation bill.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 23.

Bill Hudson

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