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Expand transit in this legislative session? Talk’s cheap

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

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.

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.

“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.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/06/2013 - 10:11 am.

    Crazy, indeed

    Raising the gasoline tax ought to be a no-brainer. I’m obviously not in the Governor’s inner circle, and have no idea what rationale currently explains Dayton’s timidity in this regard, but if there are any legislators left under the capitol dome who still understand the notion that “there ain’t no free lunch,” the justifications for a significant rise in gas and diesel fuel taxes seems self-evident. It comes closer to the typical “conservative” model of a “user fee” than most other funding sources.

    With research already abundant that roads are just as heavily subsidized as other transit modes, raising the gas tax would, at least for a time, lessen that subsidy to some degree, which ought to be welcome news to those who are typically opposed to government involvement in the “free market.”

    Equally important is, as the article suggests, the opportunity transit expansion offers for leveraging local and state dollars to attract large amounts of federal funding. The “New Starts” program is essentially a zero-sum operation, and if Minnesota lets the opportunity slide by, the funding will go to someone, somewhere, else. We’ll have missed a quite sizable and important opportunity to improve the transportation infrastructure of the metro area. Down the road, there will be ample reason to regret that shortsightedness.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/06/2013 - 11:52 pm.

      We hear so much about making MN “competitive” with other states

      …let’s hope the legislature is wise enough to apply this thinking to the “New Starts” opportunity.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/06/2013 - 10:30 am.


    It just boggles my mind that the legislature isn’t on board to get this job done. We need a dedicated 1¢ tax for transit so we can stop this nickle and dime process of building one line every ten years. Get a secure fund stream already so we can move forward with these projects in a predictable manner.

  3. Submitted by ALAN BELISLE on 05/06/2013 - 10:46 am.

    LRT nice to have but…

    As planned, the SW corridor project practically duplicates the already established, fast, comfortable, efficient bus service from Eden Prairie to downtown and the U of M. The proposed routes either zigzag all over town looking for passengers or pass over the swamp that regularly eats the water mains around the nearby strip mall. There is the old rail line that was saved expressly for a future light rain line, but that is now a biking/walking trail with huge NIMBY support. All told, I just don’t think that this is a good place to build it or a great use for $1.25 Billion.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 05/06/2013 - 04:30 pm.

      Southwest LRT is Critical

      Southwest LRT does NOT duplicate existing service. It *might* duplicate existing service for people in Eden Prairie who exclusively want to go downtown, but that’s it. There are a lot more people along the line than those who currently use the SW Transit buses.

      In particular, people living in Hopkins, St. Louis Park, North Minneapolis and yes, CIDNA and Kenwood will have new transit service, service that hasn’t existed since at least the ’50’s when we tore up the streetcars.

  4. Submitted by David Greene on 05/06/2013 - 04:33 pm.

    Urban Dems are the Problem

    Every Democrat in the Twin Cities ought to know that it is a few white urban DFLers who are holding up transportation funding. Too many of them oppose a gas tax and sales tax “because it hurt the middle class” while ignoring that many people of color and those with lower incomes will suffer a LOT more when their bus service gets reduced. White privilege rears its ugly head.

    They’re stuck in their ivory towers, unaware of what’s happening on the ground right under their noses.

    It absolutely sickens me the way some of our urban DFLers are acting. My guess is than an urban Republican would vote for transportation.

    • Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/06/2013 - 05:45 pm.


      An urban republican would vote for any tax increase?

      • Submitted by David Greene on 05/07/2013 - 09:13 am.


        Jim Davnie, for one. He’s publicly come out against it so I can name his name. There are others in full opposition too.

        Yes, an urban Republican _would_ vote for transportation taxes. Such a legislator would have to be responsive to the communities needs, unlike Rep. Davnie who feels quite comfortable in his ivory tower where he doesn’t have to think about the consequences to the poor and people of color of a decrease in transit funding.

        Urban DFLers tout themselves as progressives and champions of the poor. Don’t believe it. There are a few really good ones, but leadership has been infected by people far too comfortable with the status quo.

      • Submitted by David Greene on 05/07/2013 - 09:20 am.

        More Information

        There’s a good thread here:

        Note how Rep. Davnie does not actually address CM Gordon’s points. He simply repeats his reasons for opposition with no response to the very good points made by CM Gordon about why Rep. Davnie’s reasoning is flawed.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/06/2013 - 08:52 pm.

      Gas Tax

      Wasn’t it the Republican legislature who punished their own when they broke ranks and voted for the last tax increase? Were you sickened then or is this just a lot of theatrics?

      • Submitted by David Greene on 05/07/2013 - 09:23 am.


        Of course I was sickened then. But I’m even MORE sickened that Rep. Davnie voted for that bill (when he could stick it in the eye of Pawlenty) but now refuses to support basically the same bill.

        Gov. Dayton shares a huge amount of blame as well. His opposition to a gas tax is a huge threat to any transportation funding. But as 2008 shows, legislators can lead, even with opposition by a governor. I was hoping Rep. Davnie and other urban DFLers would lead. Now I would settle for them just not actively opposing transit funding.

  5. Submitted by FRANK WILLKIE on 05/09/2013 - 05:49 pm.

    Ridiculous be-hind other Cities.

    Boston, New York, Philly, Balt, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, New Orleans, Denver, Salt Lake of all Cities, Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, L.A., San Diego, Dallas, Houston.
    Monteal Toronto, Edmontoh, Clargry, Vancouver,
    London, Paris., etc in Europen.
    Sydney, Melbourn, Perth.

    and the list goes on and on.

    Why are the Twin Cities so pig headed behind the times.
    It was because of the Jerks that took out the Street Cars now 60 years ago, yes, people, 8 years Post War II, meanwhile, the RR’s in the 50’s still had Passenger Service, and then in the 60’s it was all Down Hill. and Amtrak has its ups and downs for 42 years.

    We have run out of space to bring Transit back in with-out going over Fright Lines.

    My Understanding from a Person that Retired from Amtrak that was Hired by the GN indicated that this town could of had Chicago type Tran Service to the Burbs for the Burbbies to enjoy.
    No, the perofessional people at the time did not want to belive or even listed to it.
    Gov. Dayton. your Family may been for or not for Rapid Transit, cause, the Pillsbuys would not have it out to the Wayzata Burb, and its own town, back in the old days.
    So, that being said, Post BN. the GN main line was a 2nd Line. and now a 2 lane by pass N of Long Lake. how is that progress 50 years later. the Traffic gets worst all the time.

    I also recall that Hwy 12 into I-394 was to be build in the 60’s but, no , the progress was stop at MN 101 in the Wayzata Burb. now I-394 is 55 east of I-494, while 12 on a 2 lane is 60. why does that make any sense. a narrow 2 lane 60 while I-394 is sitll only 55, but whom obeys?

    And now we have the Inshane Lane, hardly used. sure Bues and a few Car Pools at Rush Hr. big deal. . meanwhile it takes longer to take the Bus to Wayzata from Downtown Minneapolis, vs from Downtown St Paul. no thanks to the run about way. Frontage Rd. Ridgedale, etc.

    So, why would I have to Transfer 2x , to get to Wayzata just for a dinner party. I don’t I drive. and my Round Trip is still faster vs one way on the Bus Transfering 2x.

    Does it cost more yes. how about my time, when I have to leave my Dog Home?

    Transit to the Burbs for the Burbbies is at Rush Hr, only. however, not all Burbbies work downtown, those Burbbies go from one burb to the other burb everyday bumper to bumper.

    This town got Spread out before the porgress of Rapid Transit was even herd of.

    Some other guy now gone. said that I-35 W was out-dated the day it open, yes people 50 years ago. Hiawatha was desine to be a 4 Lane, but was stop to save the Minnehaha Park,

    Therefore, why ruin a Park for those Burbbies that would never take the time to enjoy a quit walk with their dog?

    In Salt Lake of All Conservative Cites build their Rapid Transit. why not here?
    most of the people that live in the Cities I mentioin above are even more Conservative.

    I-94 NB from Downtown took 20 years to Complete. then at I-694 is a joke.
    I-35E is 45 mph is a joke. is it safe @ 55?, but how is Hwy 12 through Long Lake Bub save at 60?
    Obviously, people can complain all they want. The Stop Lights on Hiawata is screwed up, perhaps to get those jerks too slow down. then again, how many run red lights?

    Young Conservatives have no clue that this town once had decent Bus Service to the Burbs. then it was Cancelled. now Traffic is worst no thanks to the Transit Cuts.

    Well, Complaine all you want about Rapid Transit, fact, its coming, well it last longer vs 3 new Sport Stadiums? and speaking of which. we have run of space in the Burbs for any new Stadiums. had it been build in downtown Arden Hills, where is the Transit?

    The belt way Interstates are needed in Repair, No Thanks to the Burbbies. There is a cost to live in the Burbs. Fuel, Time and Road Tax.

    Agree with me or not.
    This town had decent Rapid Tansit until 60 years ago, and it was destorued by greed.

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