Transit system dodges bullet with reduced funding cuts in retooled transportation bill

Raise fares, slash service and you could force many people who are now self-sufficient onto public assistance, creating new demands on the state budget.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Raise fares, slash service and you could force many people who are now self-sufficient onto public assistance, creating new demands on the state budget.

The Twin Cities regional transit system and its patrons dodged a bullet Monday when the Dayton administration succeeded in tempering the state funding cut that had been approved by the Republican House and Senate.

The transportation budget bill (PDF) is to be acted on later today during the special session.

The bill’s original 85 percent funding reduction would have forced drastic fare increases and service cuts, curtailing service that thousands of residents depend on. It also would have impaired the region’s ability to compete with other metro areas for new business and jobs.

The administration and legislative leaders agreed to provide $78 million for regional transit in the next two years, about halfway between the $129 million approved for the previous biennium and the $20 million originally approved by the two houses.

Wide range of services
The state appropriation helps fund Metro Transit, Metro Mobility for people with disabilities, dial-a-ride transit service where regular-route transit is unavailable and six suburban transit providers.

The Metropolitan Council, which oversees the system, may try to dip into other agency funds in an effort to make up for the $51 million cut and avoid any fare increases or service reductions — at least in the short term.

Leading business groups opposed the Legislature’s original funding cut, fearing the negative impact it would have on the region’s economy and workforce.

“We’re very cognizant that an adequate level of reasonably priced and high-quality transit is extremely important if we’re going to continue to grow and experience [economic] vitality,” says Kent Warden of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Minneapolis.

An estimated 40 percent of the employees in downtown Minneapolis and 20 percent of the workers in downtown St. Paul travel to and from work by transit, reducing traffic congestion for all commuters as well as the demand for costly parking facilities. In surveys, 46 percent of train riders and 31 percent of bus riders say they would’ve driven alone were it not for transit service.

Many workers use transit with the active encouragement and support of their employers. More than 240 employers now participate in Metro Transit’s Metropass program, which makes discounted fare passes available to more than 182,000 employees.

However, many transit users don’t have the option of jumping into their car if transit service is unavailable. More than 40 percent of bus riders do not own or cannot operate a car, and 46 percent have household incomes of less than $35,000 a year.

These people have no other means to get to work, school, medical appointments and other vital destinations. Raise fares, slash service and you could force many people who are now self-sufficient onto public assistance, creating new demands on the state budget.

People with disabilities also would be affected by reductions in transit service. Because all of Metro Transit’s buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts, many disabled people are able to use regular-route transit service.

Curtail that service and more people would be forced to rely on Metro Mobility, the federally mandated dial-a-ride, door-to-door service for people with disabilities. That service requires a subsidy of more than $20 per ride, compared with $2.27 for Metro Transit.

Many Republican legislators seem to think transit should be self-supporting, although no major transit system in the country gets by on fare box revenue alone. The Twin Cities transit system actually ranks high in performance and efficiency, compared with its peers, according to a Legislative Auditor’s report issued early this year.

Suburban transit issue should be addressed
This system could be made even more efficient if lawmakers addressed an issue that the Legislative Auditor largely ducked – the questionable need for six small suburban transit providers that serve 12 communities.

In 2010, five of these providers required state subsidies ranging from $4.68 to $12.30 per passenger.  The sixth of these systems, Maple Grove, contracted with Metro Transit for service and required a subsidy of just $2.01 per passenger.

During the last eight years, the Metropolitan Council made great progress in expanding the region’s transit system and enhancing its ability to compete with metro areas like Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Portland and Salt Lake City — all of which are investing in transit.

This progress included opening the region’s first light-rail transit line in the Hiawatha Corridor, starting construction of a second LRT line in Central Corridor, nearly doubling the number of park-and-ride spaces and — most importantly — growing transit ridership.

In 2010, transit provided nearly 91 million rides, an increase of nearly 25 percent since 2002.

Not all Republicans are anti-transit. In 1970, the administration of Republican Gov. Harold LeVander engineered the public takeover of the Twin Cities’ failing bus company — which was being driven into the ground by a holding company headed by the late Carl Pohlad. The LeVander administration began dramatic improvements in the system, including the purchase of 465 new buses, the installation of transit shelters and stop signs, and establishment of the first 24-hour transit information center.

Les Bolstad II — the first chair of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (now a part of the Met Council) and an architect of those early transit improvements — says many Republican legislators were critical to the success of those efforts. “It was a different Republican Party then – the party of Elmer Andersen, the party of Harold LeVander,” he says.

At the national level, the late Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, was an ardent proponent of improved transit and wrote several lengthy treatises to articulate his views.

“Quality transit works, and we can see that it works when we measure it correctly, by the yardstick of transit competitive trips (trips where transit is an available alternative to the car),” he wrote. “In our view, quality transit works so well that, if we can keep the cost of providing it within reason, America could see another ‘transit era,’ a second coming of public transit, especially rail.”

Steven Dornfeld is a former newspaper reporter and editor and former public affairs director of the Metropolitan Council.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Maury Landsman on 07/19/2011 - 02:43 pm.

    Truth be told, the Republican party and the conservative movement have been taken over by Social Darwinists. They appear to believe if you cannot afford private [fill in your favorite service] then you don’t deserve to have that service. Survival of the richest.

  2. Submitted by fran josef on 07/19/2011 - 03:12 pm.

    Mr. Dornfeld:

    Thank you for the transit piece.
    I have a question about your suburban discussion:

    “Suburban transit issue should be addressed

    This system could be made even more efficient if lawmakers addressed an issue that the Legislative Auditor largely ducked – the questionable need for six small suburban transit providers that serve 12 communities.

    In 2010, five of these providers required state subsidies ranging from $4.68 to $12.30 per passenger. The sixth of these systems, Maple Grove, contracted with Metro Transit for service and required a subsidy of just $2.01 per passenger. ”

    I am not sure if you are suggesting merging these companies into one, getting rid of some of them, or something else.

    As a regular rider in the suburban line, I can tell you that many people rely on them for work, and for grocery shopping.

    I would appreciate it if you would clarify what you mean in this section of the story. Thank you.

  3. Submitted by Dean Ryan on 07/19/2011 - 03:17 pm.

    I just can’t understand how these young Republicans leaders think their making good economic decisions for our state. It all seems penny wise pound foolish. Our economy needs us all not just their precious “job creators”. One goes bankrupt without the other. They seem hell bent on hurting just the common man. Thank god they found some reality despite their parties rhetoric.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/19/2011 - 03:31 pm.

    I second Mr. Landsman.

    Until I figure out a way to get to Target Field by transit (and until there are more seats available – probably next year, after this year’s debacle), I won’t be attending any Twins games. I’m NOT going to drive downtown and fight the traffic after years of being able to ride light rail or express buses to stadiums in St. Louis and Denver.

  5. Submitted by craig furguson on 07/19/2011 - 03:41 pm.

    Transit is one of those services that benefit a middle class worker driving in from the suburbs like me. Though the rush hour suburban routes must be the most subsidized. Big distance and running full only one way in the morning and evening.

  6. Submitted by David Greene on 07/19/2011 - 04:08 pm.

    @fran

    My take on the opt-outs is that they are a failed experiment. They absolutely provide a necessary service but do so at an exorbitant cost. Economies of scale matter and having Metro Transit provide all service would be much more efficient.

    Craig’s (#5) post hints at another problem with opt-outs. They aren’t particularly good at providing reverse-commute service. There is no incentive for suburban providers to address the needs of people traveling from the cities out to jobs in the suburbs. They do provide some reverse-commute service but not enough. If buses truly operate empty one-way that’s a complete waste. People will ride if there is a way to get back home (another problem with suburban service as provided by the opt-outs).

    The opt-outs were originally created because suburban communities felt Metro Transit was not addressing their needs. This is fundamentally a problem of Met Council accountability and there are several ways to address that. Opt-outs are a band-aid that causes more harm than good.

  7. Submitted by David Greene on 07/19/2011 - 04:10 pm.

    No bullet dodged here. It just hit the gut rather than the heart. Without an increase in funding, transit dies either way. One just takes a little longer.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/19/2011 - 04:19 pm.

    Wooowwww. There was some rectal-cranial inversion going on when they crafted this one. Can anyone in the GOP explain how an EIGHTY-FIVE percent reduction in public transit funding is supposed to help businesses? The economy? Get people off of welfare? Jobs? Balance the budget (helloooo…even if you cut ONE HUNDRED percent, you’d still be having to figure out what to do with the other $4.9 billion deficit)?

    I ride the bus. I work downtown. I make a good salary, have a high education, and can afford to drive to work and park downtown. But I don’t because it’s less stressful, less expensive, and more socially responsible. But I guess they prefer congestion and polluted air. I can see how that would be pleasing (not).

  9. Submitted by les bolstad II on 07/19/2011 - 05:13 pm.

    Great story. Much in the way of relevant facts and data. Transit is truly part of the public service fabric just like police & fire & public works. Further, transit is one of the four levers of metro growth: Highways, transit, sewers and open space.
    The Twin Cities have a rich history of transit development, starting with Tom Lowry’s street railway’s which shaped the early development patterns of the area.

  10. Submitted by fran josef on 07/19/2011 - 05:27 pm.

    @David I have found the BEline to provide quite good service in both directions during the morning and evening.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/19/2011 - 08:15 pm.

    Good story, and I love Rachel’s “rectal-cranial inversion” line.

    My two cents is that this looks a lot like another facet of the “cities are evil” hysteria that periodically grips rural and suburban dwellers. Having grown up and lived in suburbs for 65 of my 67 years, I do understand the viewpoint, but it’s a throwback to Thomas Jefferson and what my history professors referred to fondly as “The Agrarian Myth.”

    Oversimplified, that myth says that those who own land and/or property – whether it’s 3,000 acres outside Worthington, or 1/3 acre in Maple Grove, a McMansion in Minnetonka or a tract house in my Minneapolis neighborhood – are morally superior to those who own no land at all. Ergo, city-dwellers, almost by definition, deserve vilification because, after all, they live so CLOSE to their neighbors, and often don’t even own their living space, both of those conditions being assumed to automatically create or condone dependence on government, drug addiction, criminality in various forms, body odor, and a host of other ills from which “owners” believe themselves to be immune.

    Republicans, local and national, don’t quite understand that while it seems likely to last a while longer, the gasoline-powered automobile cannot continue to be the dominant mode of transportation. We don’t have the resources to continue a lifestyle that absolutely depends upon cheap oil, and those unwilling to give up their SUV, but blasé about putting young Americans in harm’s way in the Middle East (or wherever necessary) to protect our oil supplies, are both intellectually and morally bankrupt.

    The way we’ve lived, zoned and developed for the past half century is not sustainable, not even for another half century. Mass transit, regardless of the specific form(s), is the only viable economic and social solution to the inescapable problem of dwindling resources if we hope to maintain even a faint shadow of a lifestyle that most of us would call “comfortable,” not to mention a political system that at least maintains a veneer of democratic institutions.

    The necessary adjustments are going to be painful, no matter what. Cutting transit funding because, after all, suburban and rural legislators don’t need it or use it, is foolish with a capital “F.” It also blatantly discriminates against urban dwellers, the less-affluent, and those who, given the opportunity, would be happy to live “greener” and more inexpensively by choice.

    As public policy, it’s playing Russian Roulette with the pistol fully loaded.

  12. Submitted by David Greene on 07/19/2011 - 11:15 pm.

    @Fran

    The BE line is a bit of an oddity. It’s a cross-suburban service in the inner ring, closer to what Metro Transit urban lines do than what the exurban opt-outs do. Yes, the BE line serves people in both directions but it’s not a city-to-suburb reverse commute.

  13. Submitted by Lynn Wehrman on 07/19/2011 - 11:47 pm.

    I was wondering if Minn Post reporters have asked the Metropolitan Council if they plan to once again demand that federal rural transportation funding be granted to them, and diverted from rural Minnesota communities and residents in need, to fill their funding gap. It’s not legal, but yes, it’s been proposed and executed in the past.

Leave a Reply