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House GOP would aid inefficient suburban transit lines

MnDOT
Metro Transit is the region’s largest transit operator, providing about 90 percent of all service.

Last session, Republican legislators wanted to slash state funding for regional transit by a whopping 85 percent, which would have forced drastic increases in fares and reductions in service.

This year, House Republicans are pushing a bill that would provide a larger share of the current regional transit funding to six small suburban providers – which require substantially greater public subsidies than Metro Transit – and open the door for more suburbs to opt out of the Metro Transit system.

In justifying the bill’s approach, House Transportation Committee Chair Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, argues that “one size does not fit all” and that the suburban providers better serve local needs.

It’s certainly not because they are more efficient.

In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Metro Transit required a subsidy of $2.57 per passenger.

In contrast, five of the six suburban providers required state subsidies ranging from $4.27 to $8.47 per passenger.  The sixth of these systems, Maple Grove, contracted with Metro Transit for service and required a subsidy of just $1.76 per passenger.

Beard and the suburban providers argue that their service is more expensive because they provide more express bus service with longer trips. Their express bus service requires subsidies ranging from $3.52 to $8.39 per passenger, compared to $2.70 per passenger for the express bus routes operated by Metro Transit.

In a January 2011 report, the Legislative Auditor said the Twin Cities’ regional transit system “has performed well on most measures of efficiency, effectiveness and impact” in comparison with 11 peer regions. But it glossed over the relative inefficiency of the suburban providers.

Metro Transit is the region’s largest transit operator, providing about 90 percent of all service. As such, it is hardly surprising that it can achieve certain economies of scale and operate more efficiently. It also provides many services for the suburban providers and their customers, including:

  • Maintaining a website and customer information center that provides transit route and schedule information for all providers in the region.
  • Printing and distributing transit route schedules for all providers.
  • Providing online trip-planner tools and interactive maps that include the service of all providers.
  • Providing some Metro Transit Police services in areas where both Metro Transit and suburban providers run buses.

Nonetheless, Beard and his allies want to steer a larger share of regional transit funding to the six suburban providers, which serve 12 communities primarily in the southwestern suburban area.

Their bill also would give more suburbs the option to “opt out” of Metro Transit service over the next four years and start their own service – funded with a share of the existing regional transit dollars coming from the state general fund and the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax.

These dollars go to help operate not only Metro Transit and the six suburban providers, but also Metro Mobility for persons with disabilities and Transit Link dial-a-ride service for areas not served by regular route transit.

This measure would put a further strain on regional transit funding, which has not kept pace with costs. Partially as a result of state budget problems, the Legislature never provided its full share of the cost to operate the Hiawatha light-rail transit (LRT) line, which began service in 2004, or the Northstar commuter rail line, which began operation in 2009.

As a result, the Metropolitan Council – the parent organization of Metro Transit – has had to stretch existing resources, spend down reserves and dip into non-transit funds to avoid major fare increases or service reductions.

Several years ago, the council developed a set of guidelines to govern operating and financial procedures for both Metro Transit and the suburban providers, since they all rely upon the same state funding pool and federal capital grants. Three of these suburban providers had amassed reserves equaling 150 percent or more of their annual budgets, which seemed excessive.

The guidelines were partly in response to criticism from the Federal Transit Administration that the council did not “conduct adequate oversight” over the suburban operators. The suburban providers have responded by seeking legislation giving them with more state funding and greater independence from the Met Council.

One danger is that their efforts could lead to complaints under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, alleging that some of the region’s affluent suburbs already are receiving a higher level of transit service – including lavish stations and over-the-road coaches – than inner-city areas served by Metro Transit.

Should the Beard legislation win final passage, it could be a target for veto by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

No money for Southwest LRT

The Senate Capital Investment Committee on Wednesday approved a $496 million state bonding bill that, like its House companion, includes no money for the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail transit line.

Gov. Mark Dayton had recommended a $25 million down payment on the state’s share of the proposed $1.25 billion line, which would run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis and connect with the region’s other rail transit lines near Target Field.

The Metropolitan Council and its project partners have received federal approval to begin preliminary engineering on the line. But they will not be eligible to apply for 50-percent federal funding of the massive project until they receive state and local commitments for the other 50 percent.

The project enjoys broad support in the business community, including that of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Twin West chambers of commerce. But leading Republicans have vowed to “stop the project in its tracks.”

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Comments (1)

Legislative incompetence

“Leading Republicans,” Mr. Beard specifically included, are fools and charlatans in this instance, basing transit legislation on ideology rather than equity and demonstrated need, and attempting, it would appear, to steer public dollars away from serving the entire region toward serving a particular set of suburban users, while simultaneously doing their best to quash one of the few transit projects in the country that actually has a green light – and stands to receive large amounts of green dollars – from Washington.

The fact that Steve Dornfeld used to work for the Met Council doesn’t negate the validity of his concerns, and the fact that business interests in the form of the largest Chambers of Commerce are solidly behind the Southwest Corridor light rail provides further evidence that Beard and his cohorts are being driven by a perverse combination of ideology and parochial self-interest. Tossing aside many millions of dollars in federal support for the Southwest Corridor line is sheer stupidity.

Balkanization of the region’s legitimately area-wide services makes for both waste and inefficiency, not to mention higher costs for everyone concerned. Beard’s is a proposal that deserves a swift and decisive death, whether in the legislature or from a Dayton veto.