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.