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

The move has triggered alarm among environmental and transit activists.

Hennepin County Board
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.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”