Vikings win the big one; modern transportation loses

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To the surprise of few, a new Vikings stadium won the billion-dollar showdown with a proposed light rail transit line that I previewed a few weeks back. Legislators facing loud, purple-clad lobbyists in an election year opted to raise $348 million from expanded gambling to match $477 million from the Wilf family and $150 million from Minneapolis taxpayers for a new pigskin palace on the site of the Metrodome.

Meanwhile, many of the same legislators turned a deaf ear to a request for $25 million in state borrowing to secure a whopping $625 million from the federal government for the Southwest LRT. That project remains in limbo now, although its business community backers are pushing another way to show a state commitment to pay one-tenth of the total cost.

More on that later, but first a quick review of the relative benefits of each proposal. Barring playoff runs, the Vikings will play just 10 times a year in the new facility. Other events may help fill out the schedule, but most of those would be happy to stay in the paid-for Metrodome. But regular users such as college baseball teams that have rented the Metrodome in bad weather will be left out in the cold.

But if you’re looking for some local pride, the Twin Cities will remain the second smallest metro in the country with all four major men’s professional sports teams playing in publicly financed facilities. Even much bigger Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle can’t claim that. And some places nipping at our economic heels, including San Diego, which has fewer pro teams, and Denver, have aggressive, far-sighted transit expansion programs. Even Omaha, the cold version of which we’ve avoided becoming by lavishing public dollars on pro sports, has better transit service than our region.

The Southwest LRT is the next logical step in the slow development of a Twin Cities rail transit system. It would connect Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis along a route that is expected to add 60,000 jobs by 2030 to the 200,000 already there. The 30,000 people projected to ride the Southwest daily would outnumber the Vikings’ yearly attendance by more than 10 to 1.

Is there a way to resurrect this worthwhile project after we’ve blown a wad kowtowing to the NFL? Maybe. The Legislature set aside $47.5 million in the bonding bill for unfunded projects that will boost economic development. There will be many suitors for this money, including civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud, as well as—God help us—St. Paul’s bid for a new Saints ballpark.

The Southwest project could stay on course with just $14 million of that pie, but its bid could be rejected because it would pay for preliminary engineering, not actual construction that begins this year, which state officials consider a main criterion in the competitive process. Of course, Vikings stadium construction won’t start this year, either. Meanwhile, according to Finance & Commerce, leaders of three area chambers of commerce are pursuing money from other, unnamed sources.

“Conceivably a failure to fully fund preliminary engineering could stall the project,” Bruce Nustad, president of the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, told the business newspaper. “Obviously, a stalling … would not send a good message” to federal funders. “Right now, the project enjoys a very favorable placement in the federal queue, and we don’t want to give that up.”

Clearly, our leaders didn ‘t want to give up the Vikings, regardless of the cost. We’ll see if they’re willing to give up on 21st century transit rather than pay a state contribution barely one-third the size of what we’re ponying up to appease the NFL.