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Expand transit in this legislative session? Talk’s cheap

Visions of securing funding to expand the regional bus system and build multiple new rail-transit lines are fading.

LRV being towed past the state Capitol on University Avenue.
Courtesy of Central Corridor LRT

When the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature began, transit advocates had great expectations – visions of securing funding commitments to expand the regional bus system and simultaneously build multiple new rail transit lines.

Now there’s a real possibility that they will wind up with only a “lights-on” transportation bill that maintains existing transit service, with no new funding commitments for even the light-rail transit (LRT) line where engineering already is underway.

“It is pretty frustrating,” says Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities (TLC).  “We were able to put together a pretty large coalition – called Transit for a Stronger Economy – 52 groups including labor, developers, environmentalists, social justice, faith-based groups. We really hoped this was going to be the year when we could advance the transit agenda.”

The reason for the optimism, of course, was the 2012 election that gave the DFL control of the House and Senate in addition to the governorship.

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During the previous decade, with the House and/or the governorship in Republican hands, securing support for transit was always an uphill battle. The Metropolitan Council, the metro counties and their allies managed to obtain funding to build the Northstar commuter rail line and the Central Corridor LRT line, but it wasn’t easy.

I had a front row seat during the entire painful process, serving as public affairs director for the Met Council from 2003 to 2011.

Supposed to be different

This year things were going to be different. TLC began rallying public support for a plan to raise the existing quarter-cent regional sales tax for transit to a full penny.

“Transit systems in the Twin Cities region and across the state are not adequate to meet the demand or the need,” the group said. “Without new funding transit service cannot grow and it could even shrink!  A 3/4 cent increase in the regional sales tax will provide new travel options for everyone – including the people who need them the most – seniors, people with a disability and low income workers.”

Gov. Mark Dayton met the group part-way, proposing to increase the regional sales-tax levy to a half-cent. The Senate Transportation Committee approved a bill to do just that and coupled it with a new gasoline tax at the wholesale level to boost funding for highways, which advocates say is needed to garner rural votes.

But the governor says he won’t go along with a gas tax increase, and the Senate bill has remained stalled in the Tax Committee. Behind the scenes, the bill’s supporters have been seeking ideas for changes that might make the measure more viable.

House DFLers, meanwhile, have backed away from any tax increase for transit or highways. They apparently fear a voter backlash if they raises too many taxes.  To balance the state budget and pay for new spending, they already have voted to approve $2.6 billion in new taxes.

Instead, the House has approved a “lights-on” transportation bill that would provide $129 million in general fund money for regional transit operations. This would leave the council scrambling to find $18 million in other funds just to maintain existing transit service and open the new Central Corridor LRT line late next year.

This would not be a first. For much of the last decade, the council has had to dip into reserves and non-transit accounts just to keep pace with transit costs and avoid service reductions. The council has no power to levy taxes for transit operating costs.

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“Guns, marriage, the budget, taxes – it just seems like other issues have overwhelmed transportation this session,” says veteran transportation lobbyist Bill Schreiber. “I think in a more normal year, when you weren’t talking about increasing other taxes, it would be easier.”

Southwest Corridor project

The Southwest Corridor LRT project has been caught in the middle of this fiscal skirmishing. The Met Council already has begun preliminary engineering on the 15.8-mile, $1.25 billion rail line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

In order to compete for 50-percent federal funding under the “New Starts” program, the council needs funding commitments from state and local sources for the other 50 percent. Under the financing model that has been used in this region, that includes securing $125 million from the state.

Dayton’s budget assumed the state’s share would come out of the regional sales tax he proposed, and he did not include any money for Southwest in his proposed state bonding bill. At this point, however, it is uncertain if there will even be a bonding bill this session. While the House approved a bill that includes $50 million for Southwest and other transit projects, the Senate has not advanced a bonding bill of its own.

The council has sufficient local funds to continue preliminary engineering through June 2014. Shortly before then, project managers hope to apply to the Federal Transit Administration for approval to begin the next phase of design. But their case would be significantly weakened if the state fails to commit for its share of the project. The present timetable calls for construction to begin in 2015.

Meanwhile, the council is preparing to move forward with yet another LRT line in the 13-mile Bottineau Boulevard Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park.  And local officials and business groups are agitating for similar transit investments in the East Metro area, with the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 east of downtown St. Paul being the strongest candidate.

“We keep trying to remind legislators that the New Starts program is the largest competitive grant program within any department in the U.S. government,” Thoman says. “There is no other program where you can compete across the country and secure funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars. For us as a region to not apply and have these funds go to build out transit systems in other parts of the country is just crazy.”