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Hennepin County just gave itself the option of using a transit-focused tax for roads and bridges

Hennepin County Board
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Hennepin County Board majority said transit should be first in line, but there are non-transit needs that could be met with that money.

Two questions were before the Hennepin County Board Tuesday, both related to how commissioners should spend proceeds from a sales and vehicle excise tax adopted two years ago for transportation projects.

The first question: Could they spend the revenue on roads and bridges and not just transit?

The second question: Should they spend it on roads and bridges and not just transit?

After a discussion about state bonding support, the need for a state gas tax increase and even schoolyard bullies, the seven-member board answered yes to both questions  — an unstated consensus on the could part; a 4-3 vote on the should part.

By spring of 2020, county staff is to report back to the board on ways to spend some of the $135 million collected each year on road and bridge projects. The bulk of the money is committed to current and future light rail and commuter rail lines. 

Hennepin County, for example, pays half the operating costs of the Green and Blue lines and provides all non-federal funds for the ongoing Southwest Light Rail Transit construction as well as the still-held-up Bottineau project. But county staff estimated that $10 million to $25 million a year could be available, at least in the short term.

And while the board majority said transit should be first in line, there are non-transit needs that could be met with that money. “In Hennepin County we have stepped up to the need to support a multi-model transit system, and we’ve done so more than any other county in the state,” said Commissioner Jan Callison of her proposal, which was one of many amendments to the $2.5 billion 2020 county budget. “But this also gives us the opportunity to meet some other needs.”

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to have this conversation because we would have Southwest underway, we’d have Bottineau beginning construction now, all this money would be dedicated to those two lines and to the operating deficit to follow,” said Commission Mike Opat. “But we have a different reality.” 

That reality has seen BNSF Railway refuse to cooperate on plans to build a Bottineau extension of the Blue Line to Brooklyn Park, which means money planned to help fund its construction isn’t being spent.

Commissioner Jan Callison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Commissioner Jan Callison: “In Hennepin County we have stepped up to the need to support a multi-model transit system, and we’ve done so more than any other county in the state.”
“We’re collecting a lot of cash and we don’t have a lot of places for it to go that are appropriate,” Opat said.

The three no voters said it is already too hard to get money for transit and that the change, however temporary, sets a bad precedent. “Transit is the skinny kid on the playground, and transit is constantly getting beat up and having its lunch money stolen,” said Commissioner Marion Greene. 

“If we chip away at this money and use it for roads and bridges and not transit, we’re chipping away at the future that we want to build,” Greene said. “Roads and bridges would be looking backward.”

Commissioner Angela Conley said that if there aren’t additional transit projects on the county’s list, perhaps they should add some, such as the D-Line bus rapid transit line from Bloomington to Brooklyn Park via downtown Minneapolis. That project is awaiting funding from the state Legislature.

Ultimately, Commissioners Jeff Johnson and Irene Fernando joined Callison and Opat in approving the amendment. Voting no were Greene, Conley and Commissioner Debbie Goettel.

A brief history of CTIB

The local sales tax at issue was authorized by the state Legislature more than a decade ago. The law allowed counties to vote to impose up to a one-half of one percent sales tax and a $20 vehicle excise tax and use the money for all transportation needs — transit, roads, bridges — as long as the county first crafted a spending plan and had a public hearing on the plan.

Hennepin and four other Twin Cities counties — Ramsey, Washington, Anoka and Dakota — did not adopt that tax because they opted to use a different funding scheme. Instead, they joined together to form the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), a regional body that assessed a one-quarter of one percent sales tax and the vehicle tax and made joint decisions on how to spend the revenue to further shared transit goals. 

In nearly 10 years of existence, the board collected more than $1 billion for commuter rail, light rail and bus rapid transit projects. But CTIB dissolved in 2017 amidst disagreements between the more-urban counties and the suburban counties, whose leaders didn’t think they were getting enough of the benefit.

One consequence of CTIB’s dissolution is that going forward all five counties could nearly double the amount of money they collected for projects (Hennepin and Ramsey adopted a one-half of one percent tax while Washington, Anoka and Dakota continued to collect one-quarter of one percent).

Commissioner Angela Conley, left, voted against the amendment. Commissioner Irene Fernando, right, voted for it.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Commissioner Angela Conley, left, voted against the amendment. Commissioner Irene Fernando, right, voted for it.
But because the state Legislature, then under GOP control, had opted out of picking up 10 percent of light rail construction costs, local governments’ share rose from 40 percent to 50 percent. And without CTIB participation, each county had to agree to pick up all funding for projects to which CTIB had once contributed.

Those projects include SWLRT, Bottineau and the Riverview Corridor, which is planned to run from downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Also in line for county funding was the North Star commuter train as well as highway bus rapid transit, such as the Orange Line from downtown Minneapolis to Lakeville, the Gold Line from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury and the Rush Line from downtown St. Paul to Hinkley.

‘Everyone in this county depends on roads’

When the Hennepin board adopted its plan and the tax in 2017, the resolution said its goal was to “preserve and maintain its current transportation system while also providing and expanded transportation options.”

While most of the conversation was about transit, the plan itself was more broad. The revenue could pay for “capital costs associated with other transportation or transit projects or improvements, as identified in Hennepin County’s Capital Improvement Plan, and operating costs, to the extent designated in the future by the County Board after a public hearing.”

That is what Callison’s recent amendment triggers. Staff was directed to craft a proposal for spending on non-transit transportation projects with the revenue in excess of what is needed for the light rail and BRT plans. The proposal would need to come back to the board in the first quarter of 2020 and would need a public hearing before approval.

A staff report on the Callison amendment made the case for other spending. “As its vast infrastructure changes, Hennepin County is constantly striving to manage roadway infrastructure but cannot keep pace with the current and projected needs with the current funding strategies,” it noted. 

But the proposal also triggered pushback. Before the board vote, Joshua Houdek, the land use and transportation manager for the  Sierra Club North Star Chapter, said he was alarmed when he first heard of the Callison proposal. 

“Vehicle pollution is a public health crisis in Hennepin County, disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income communities, and we are in a climate change crisis,” Houdek said. “We need action now to fully fund clean transportation options, like transit, bicycling and walking, and electrification.” 

While there are already dedicated taxes for roads and bridges only —  especially the state gas tax — there are none dedicated for transit, though the county tax comes closest to that. “Nothing in this state, county, or the great cities that make up our county is 100 percent dedicated to funding the critical need for clean transit options,” Houdek said. “But historically, the Transportation Sales and Use Tax was set up to do just that.”

Added Finn McGarrity, a community organizer for Move Minnesota: “In an era of climate crisis and mobility injustice it does not make sense to divest more transit funds into roads and bridges.” 

Fernando was the deciding vote Tuesday, saying the action only opened up a conversation that was envisioned when the resolution passed in 2017. She said she wants the board to look for additional transit projects for its Capital Improvement Program and to look at making sure road projects provide for transit, bicycles and pedestrians.

“I was initially disheartened … that we would be in a place to be in this conversation,” she said. “To me it means that Hennepin County does not have enough transit-eligible projects queued up to use these funds.” 

Johnson gave the strongest defense of the need to invest in roads and bridges. “Apparently some people believe that crumbling roads are fine because roads are evil,” he said. “But they’re not. Everyone in this county depends on roads even if they don’t drive a car. If they ride a bus they need a road. If they want to buy groceries if they want an ambulance to come to their house, they need a road. This is just an opportunity to get a proposal to use relatively small percentage of this money that isn’t being used for anything else to actually fund what is a great need in the county at this time.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 11/27/2019 - 11:35 am.

    Maybe they’re saying, “What the heck, the Met Council is OK with the Gold Line project (likely half a billion $$) that’s adnuttedly for real estate and development interests, not transit needs.”

  2. Submitted by Carin Peterson on 11/27/2019 - 12:32 pm.

    Oh Jeff Johnson. Even crazy trail Bikers dont believe “roads are evil”.
    Even the greenest of greens dont believe “roads are evil”.

    Your hyperbole does nothing (as usual ) to move the needle, to promote dialogue.
    No, it just gets you a quote in the paper ~ “hey guys, look at me. A Republican. Elected in Hennepin county!”

    Well good for you. You found your little bitty nitch.

    But, you dont play well with others. You are a constant NO, never a maybe, not a how about we try this with your proposal?
    You perhaps could actually won some people over if you tried a compromise or two.
    It might ot allow you to win a State-wide race!
    But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    Anyway, now I wasted all this space on you and not on the point you blew passed.

    Roads are not evil.
    But the carbon spewing vehicles on them?
    Pretty dang close considering the state of our environment !

    • Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 11/27/2019 - 03:35 pm.

      For the record, Mike Opat is DFL not Republican: a position he did not blow “past” while he was finding his “niche”

  3. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 11/27/2019 - 12:55 pm.

    The funding gaps for the D, B, and E Lines in 2018 totaled up to $90 million. I know their routes have expanded somewhat, so I’m sure the number is greater today, but these are absolutely gaps that the county can fill. The idea that the county is closing its eyes and saying “gee, we can’t find any transit projects to spend this money on” is a complete joke.

    Commissioners Greene and Conley are spot on here. Transit gets the short end of the funding every time when compared to roads and bridges. If the county doesn’t have transit projects on its official list, it should add some new ones. They certainly exist.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 11/27/2019 - 02:42 pm.

      Like maybe if they had spent the SW rail money on the area in Brooklyn Center area where commuters most need it, but no they did not and went way over budget on SW rail. Again build it where there is already density. This county wastes quite a bit of money on endless mistakes. Property taxes went up double digits for many. Seriously people ask questions.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/29/2019 - 03:39 pm.

        The reason it cost so much is that the NIMBYs delayed the project with frivolous lawsuits and dishonest objections.

      • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/29/2019 - 04:42 pm.

        Considering that this money is a surplus in transit money beyond existing commitments, I’m not sure what SWLRT has to do with it.

        As is, we have enough money to fund all the Arterial BRT lines in Hennepin County.

        Maybe if SWLRT had been cheaper, we’d be building Greenway LRT with the yet additional money from this transit tax. But that has nothing to do with the fact that the commissioners just redirected this transit money to our road addiction.

  4. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 11/27/2019 - 03:46 pm.

    As someone who is a transit rider, I only know the problems of trying to apply for jobs which are not on the bus or train lines. There are so many jobs in the suburbs which are not the train or bus lines. This one of the major reasons people use human services is the transit issue of lack of bus service to locations which have the most jobs. Minneapolis and St. Paul has few jobs I can apply for in comparison to the suburbs. This bothers me that the Work Force Center and Human Services do not lobby good enough with Republican legislators telling them how much these routes are needed. I would be willing to testify to either county or state on the need to have these routes. Human services and unemployment could actually be reduced if they did this. These Republican legislators want human services and unemployment cut, yet they want to under fund mass transit. You have to fund mass transit to those suburban jobs if you want to reduce human services and unemployment. Those legislators in all quarters need to hear this. I also think Work Force and Human Services should also be saying if you don’t want to fund mass transit adequately then we ask for money for drivers to help people to get to those jobs. They should say it is only fair to ask for them because you do not want to fund mass transit. I do not mind paying a county tax to have mass transit to suburban places so I can gain permanent employment. I go between contract work which is temporary and unemployment all the time because of the short projects found in the cities and inner suburbs which has service. The outer suburbs have the permanent jobs.

  5. Submitted by Howard Miller on 11/27/2019 - 04:25 pm.

    ‘Everyone in this county depends on roads’

    That is because Minnesota lags behind major metropolitan areas around the globe in offering alternatives to driving on roads. We have the population density in the metro counties to support public transit at higher levels than now available to citizens

    Maybe if they didn’t keep diverting transit dollars to roads for driving, there’d be workable options that allowed people to leave the car home, or not own one, and still participate in employment, commerce.

  6. Submitted by Drew Gmitro on 11/28/2019 - 01:16 am.

    “climate change crisis”, “mobility injustice”, time to move out of Minnesota before I’m taxed to death. None of these rail lines make ANY profit and will always require subsidies. 2 billion dollars to run 14 miles with Southwest Rail which will be utilized by less than 1% of the population within. Yea. Great use of taxpayers money. Just another “pet project” from the morally corrupt politicians under the guise of “the sky’s falling”. I’m selling while the market is hot.

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 11/28/2019 - 11:02 am.

      No roads make ANY profit and will always require subsidies.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/29/2019 - 07:11 pm.

      I-494 will finish this fiscal year in the red. Again.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/02/2019 - 03:35 pm.

      Head west, So Dak, No Dak are low tax states, you can buy a house there pretty damn cheap as well, but be careful of all the traffic heading this way. For some odd reason all their young people are coming here, I guess they like having a decent paying job and paying taxes.

  7. Submitted by Jim Koepke on 11/28/2019 - 07:42 am.

    People prefer to drive. We need to maintain roads and bridges.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/29/2019 - 11:35 am.

      Speak for yourself and those in your bubble, Mr. Koepke.

      Many do not prefer to drive. (I’m one of them.) And many absolutely cannot drive, due to being too poor to own and operate a car, being too young to drive or too frail in old age, or having a disability, which may be invisible, like a seizure disorder.

      Ms. Noga’s frustration with the lack of access to job opportunities in the suburbs is a point that SHOULD resonate with right-wingers, who want all low-income people to “just get better jobs.” Well, guess what, if you’re too poor to own a car, how are you going to get to those better-paying jobs in areas like Woodbury that have little or no bus service?

      I wonder how much less stress families would feel if, as in Japan, children and teens took themselves to school and extracurricular activities on public transit instead of having to be chauffeured by a parent.

      All those people who “love to drive” yet curse the traffic are hypocrites. As a bumper sticker I once saw explains: “Hate traffic? YOU are the traffic.” Suburbanites want the cities to tear themselves up further to build and widen freeways for the convenience of suburban commuters, but they balk at paying a bit more in taxes so that both urbanites and suburbanites have a CHOICE of how to get around.

      See, it’s all about choice. The anti-transit types rant about “forcing people out of their cars,” but that’s as silly as saying that the proliferation of Asian and Mexican restaurants in recent years is “forcing people not to eat hamburgers for lunch.”

      I spent ten years in Portland, Oregon, where plenty of people still drive and traffic is congested. Even then, I had the choice–and took it–of not owning a car at all. During the time I lived there, five of my friends also followed me into car non-ownership.

      Portland is known for its light rail and streetcar systems, but what really makes the system work is frequent bus service on the arterial streets. The Twin Cities could achieve that by redrawing its spaghetti tangle of bus routes so that all arterials had frequent service and all major destinations were well served.

      Forget the roads and bridges, except for necessary safety repairs. They’ve dominated the transportation scene long enough.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/28/2019 - 09:16 am.

    S’allright. Republicans are crashing and Democrats will restore budgets. It’s crazy that Henn Co. pays for the commuter rail.

    What’s funny is that while everyone is still scrambling to deal with Republican budget cuts, so many voters fail to notice THAT WE’RE SCRAMBLING TO COPE WITH REPUBLICAN BUDGET CUTS!

    Budget cuts don’t discipline agencies into more efficiencies, they just cuts services. The Republican war on transit is costing them votes because more and more of their constituents are demanding transit.

  9. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/28/2019 - 09:33 am.

    Interesting. My property taxes in my working class neighborhood went up +13.9% this year. I had the opportunity to look at the property tax statement of a client living in Uptown just off a lake with 6xs the bedrooms in their house and their taxes went down -7.9%

    I guess we are still very much in a neoliberal cycle of soak the poor/save the “job creators!’ – for forty years now.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/29/2019 - 03:44 pm.

      Assuming you live in Minneapolis, the property tax rates do not differ by neighborhoods. The idea that there is some neoliberal conspiracy here is nonsense.

      Those increases and decreases were almost certainly bases on property values.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/02/2019 - 12:20 pm.

        So you think my south Minneapolis working class neighborhood house prices increased 13.9% this year, but housing prices in the wealthiest neighborhood in Minneapolis went down 7.9%?


        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/03/2019 - 11:49 am.

          No, its not doubtful. Its just how property taxes work. If somebody’s went up and somebody else’s went down, that’s based on the assessment.

  10. Submitted by Robert Smith on 11/28/2019 - 10:39 am.

    Roads are better than rail.

    Roads are an open system: A road can carry pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, hybrids, etc. Those vehicles can be powered by gas, diesel, electric, ethanol, hydrogen, etc. The infrastructure cost and maintenance is much less than rail. Putting billions into a rigid system for decades is madness when self driving cars are just around the corner.

    For mass transit, buses are superior to rail in every way except in creating more government and union jobs.

    Rail is a historical anomaly. If the internal combustion engine had been invented first, we wouldn’t even have trains.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/29/2019 - 11:15 am.

      Thanks for your analysis Robert but for a variety of reasons our transportation infrastructure needs to be diverse. Roads are better for some things but rail is better others. This is why you see so many freight trains rolling around, they move stuff for a fraction of the price of trucking. Same with commuter rails and other transit.

      As far as historical anomalies are concerned, you DO realize that combustion engine cars will have much smaller historical footprint than rail. Nothing will displace horses in that regard for hundreds of years to come.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/29/2019 - 03:41 pm.

      Nonsense. Roads and individual vehicles are horribly inefficient. The infrastructure cost of roads is exponentially higher than that of rail.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/29/2019 - 04:45 pm.

      The failure of vehicles to effectively move people in dense urban environments is a simple matter of geometry. Vehicles are too large.

      Roads are great… particularly when we repurpose lanes for buses and bicycles, space-efficient users of this scarce public resource.

      Enjoy your congestion.

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