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Will the Gov's transit plans scuttle fed dollars?

Part of Tim Pawlenty's political success as governor is that there are no cracks in the hull: State Republicans in nearly all capacities and positions have an admiration for him. Nobody gets out of line. That's why the "override six" caused such rancor in GOP ranks.

A milder but no less notable form of apostasy came Monday morning in the State Office Building on the Capitol grounds during a House Transportation Finance Division committee hearing. There, Peter Bell, Pawlenty's chairman of the Metropolitan Council, offered up a bleak picture of what could happen if Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts to Metro Transit were to come to fruition.

Bell offered a PowerPoint presentation that showed Metro Transit will be running a $1 million deficit in fiscal year 2008, and a whopping $28 million to $40 million in 2009, if all revenues and expenses stay as-is. "How did we get to this point?" one slide in the show asked. Some answers, among many, were a decline in the motor vehicle sales tax forecasts, commitments to funding the Northstar commuter rail line and, at the end, "Governor's Budget Cuts."

First, the motor vehicle sales tax forecasts from May of last year to last month were so disparate that the Metro Transit fund will be running some $14.5 million in the red by the end of fiscal year 2009. That's due to a number of factors in revenue accounting swaps, but it's also a sign of a poor economy.

As for Pawlenty's proposed cuts in the face of a staggering state deficit, the governor's supplemental budget would have Metro Transit running $30 million short next year, unless something is done. (The House version of the governor's proposal is in the committee.)

No real solutions
What can be done? "Fare increases, Service cuts, Use of reserves, Other legislative solutions," according to one slide.

On fare increases, Bell's presentation noted that a 25-cent-across-the-board increase for bus riders, Metro Mobility users and light rail fans would pony up some $7.8 million in revenue (including offsetting ridership decline, which is likely). Adding a 50-cent increase during peak hours bumps the figure up to $8.7 million, and 50 cents across the board would garner some $13.3 million.

As far as service cuts, a 2.5 percent service cut saves $4.8 million, a 5 percent cut saves $9.6 million and a 10 percent cut would save $18.1 million, according to Bell's figures. Raise fares 50 percent and cut services by 10 percent, and you've made up the shortfall. Piece of cake, right?

Trouble is, the state is counting on some serious federal dollars for a number of projects, most notably the Central Corridor light rail plan, the I-35W busway and the Cedar Avenue bus plan. The Feds, Bell admitted, won't take too kindly to increasing fares and cutting services.

"The FTA will not fund any transit expansion if we degrade our bus system," Bell told committee members. "If we are raising fares and cutting routes ... they will not fund 50 percent" of the costs for these and other projects. Which means delays, if the projects ever happen at all.

So for now Bell and lawmakers are looking for other solutions, partnering with counties for funding and the like. But perhaps just as startling as the money issue was Bell's seeming willingness to go against the grain with the governor; he's long been viewed as a Pawlenty acolyte.

"It was extremely telling," said committee member Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis,  about Bell's testimony. "I told him I appreciated his forthrightness."

What about the governor's proposed budget cuts to transit? "It's pennywise and pound foolish," Hornstein said, citing the need for the federal money as well as transit. "The DFL will reject this completely."

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Comments (3)

A CLARIFICATION FROM PETER BELL:

The writer misinterpreted my testimony before the House committee. I was not “going against the grain with the governor.” In point of fact, I fully support the Governor’s efforts to balance the budget. The state faces a budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion and everyone – including the Met Council and Metro Transit – must participate in the solution.

-- Peter Bell, chair, Metropolitan Council

Is it just me or does anyone else notice that in this entire article the words “riders” or “consumers” does not appear in discussion of the impact of the cuts and/or price increases? The article and apparently Bell’s presentation, deals only with impacts to the system. Telling is this sentence:

“The Feds, Bell admitted, won't take too kindly to increasing fares and cutting services.”

Isn’t that exactly the strategy that was employed – cutting services – that was used on the bus riders along University Ave? According to the Pioneer Press, the standing room only Route 16 bus along University Avenue – “mostly working-class folks and often minorities” – is going to have fewer buses running and fewer stops. Why? According to the PiPress, “Because officials need to get riders off buses and onto trains to raise Central Corridor ridership forecasts to meet a federal funding formula.”

Transportation policy ought to be about mobility – getting people from where they are to where they want to go, to do what they want to do when they want to do it – not about building a system that pleases bureacrats in Washington D.C and provides a legacy for an ex-wrestler and a gaggle of professional politicians.

Why is it okay to cut service when it screws riders but serves the ends of the system, but not okay to cut back a money-losing system for the sake of the taxpayer?

Craig,

If you have ever ridden the route 16 bus you would know that it is currently at its full capacity. The status quo is what hurts transit users. The CC LRT is replacing the route 50 line which is also over capacity. The three car LRT trains will more than triple the current transit capacity along University Avenue. This is decidedly an improvement to transit users and it will attract more people out of their cars benefiting the entire state.

I admire the fact that Peter Bell has the integrity to do his job while risking retribution from Pawlenty who is obviously acting like a sore loser. Even though he states, he's not going against the Governor, the facts Mr. Bell presented in committee correctly outline the consequences of the Governor's spiteful proposed cuts to public transit.

The Governor has opposed transit investments over his entire career (at least he's consistent in being against the public interest). Cutting Metro Transit's budget is just the latest attempt on his part to delay or prevent much need investments in our regional transit system.

Minnesota should consider itself lucky to have a DFL controlled legislature that will not go along with Pawlenty's plan to take the hatchet to public transit.