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Plan to kill regional transit board moves closer to reality

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
At its regular meeting Wednesday in St. Paul, CTIB officials agreed to meet again March 3, when a resolution to dissolve the agency will be voted on.

So it turns out that a novel move to save future mass transit lines in the Twin Cities — by dissolving the Counties Transit Improvement Board — might actually happen.

CTIB is the five-county entity (it represents Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties) that collects a quarter-percent sales tax to build new transit lines in the metro. Earlier this year, CTIB officials floated a plan to kill off the entity, which — thanks to a quirk in state law — would actually allow each of the participating counties to double their local transit sales taxes. The extra money collected would be enough over the next decade to cover the entire non-federal share of projects planned for the metro, including Southwest LRT, the Bottineau light rail extension and the Gateway bus rapid transit.

A month after CTIB commissioners disagreed over the particulars of the plan, an agreement appears to have been reached. At its regular meeting Wednesday in St. Paul, CTIB officials agreed to meet again March 3, when a resolution to dissolve the agency will be voted on.

Board Chair Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner, said he had hoped to vote this week on the plan, but that working out the details of how the board meets its current funding obligations with its current revenue has been difficult. “When this first came up, I said it was complicated and I’m sticking with that,” McLaughlin said.

A significant hurdle was surmounted Wednesday when Anoka County representatives on the CTIB board said they would support dissolution. “If Anoka County couldn’t get what we thought we deserved in a dissolution, we would stay in [CTIB],” said Commissioner Scott Schulte after Wednesday’s meeting. “But as negotiations go on, it appears as though Anoka County will get what we need to exit gracefully.”

Anoka Commissioner Matt Look, who voted against a January resolution to begin the dissolution process, said he was concerned that the list of projects that would be funded with CTIB’s most recent sales tax collections favored Hennepin and Ramsey counties, suggesting that commissioners from those counties knew that dissolution was in the works and their projects were positioned for the final batch of grants last month and this month. He compared that to “insider trading.”

“It’s a negotiation,” Look said. “They presented their first position and it wasn’t acceptable to us.”

But as negotiations continued, he said Anoka’s position improved enough that he can agree to dissolution. “That’s helped to move the ball in terms of where we need to be to come to an agreeable divorce if you will.”

How it would work

County commissioners in each of the five counties will have to approve the dissolution of the joint powers agreement that formed CTIB. Once that happens, CTIB must go through a process of ending the collection of the existing quarter-cent sales tax, pay off financing obligations and close the entity. That could happen by March 31, when CTIB would notify the state to stop collecting the existing sales taxes.

Board Chair Peter McLaughlin
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Board Chair Peter McLaughlin

Before the individual counties can impose their new sales taxes, they must hold public hearings. Those would be held by the end of March, after which each county would vote on the dissolution and impose their county only taxes. The plan is to start collecting those taxes the day after the current CTIB-related sales taxes are ended, which could be June 30.

And though each of the counties currently in CTIB would be able to collect the extra funds, the most likely result is that only Hennepin and Ramsey counties would collect the full half-cent of sales tax allowed under state law, devoting the increased revenue to future projects. In Hennepin county, the money would go toward the Southwest LRT extension of the Green Line and the Bottineau extension of the Blue Line. In Ramsey, the money would fund the bus rapid transit project known as the Rush Line and the Riverview Corridor, the rail or BRT line from St. Paul to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Anoka County’s Schulte said he thinks his fellow commissioners will vote to impose a quarter-cent tax — the same level it now collects for CTIB — because it must continue to cover half of the annual operating costs of the Northstar commuter rail service from Big Lake to Target Center. He said he didn’t expect commissioners would take advantage of the other quarter cent.

Washington County is also expected to replace the current CTIB quarter cent with a like amount, with the revenue used for projects such as the Gateway BRT, which would run in dedicated lanes along I-94 from Woodbury to downtown St. Paul.

Even before the idea to dissolved CTIB surfaced, Dakota County was moving to get out of CTIB. Commissioners there argued that the county hadn’t gotten a fair share of projects, but the dissolution would shorten the time it would have to continue chipping in for already approved CTIB obligations by 18 months.

GOP opposition

CTIB has been the largest non-federal funder of projects such as the Green Line light rail. After the federal government paid half the construction costs, CTIB covered another 30 percent, while the regional rail authorities of the counties served by new lines paid 10 percent. The state of Minnesota also chipped in 10 percent.

But it has been the reluctance of Republicans in the Legislature to continue that 10 percent distribution for transit projects that led to the kill-CTIB-to-save-transit strategy.

There are still funding issues for regional transit, namely shortfalls in Metro Transit’s operating budget and the growing cost of Metro Mobility, a federally mandate ride service for the disabled. And the additional quarter-cent that would come via CTIB dissolution is less than what the five counties might have had access to had a bill pushed last year by Gov. Mark Dayton passed. Dayton wanted the five counties to have up to three-quarters of a cent in sales tax capacity along with other revenue in return for taking over both the future capital costs of new transit lines as well as all of the operating costs.

Currently, the state pays half of the operating subsidy for the Green and Blue lines with CTIB picking up the other half. Under the dissolution plan, individual counties served by lines would pay half of the operating costs while the state would continue to pay the other half.

It is that expectation of the state continuing to share operating costs — not only for existing lines that the state had agreed to and helped fund but future lines as well — that has riled some Republicans in the Legislature.

Regional transit map
East Metro Strong
Regional transit map

One proposal (HF 800), authored by Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, would renew the state’s commitment to cover half of the operating costs — but only for lines that are up and running when the bill passes. Only if the state pays some of the capital costs of future lines would they be eligible for the operating-cost share. The bill makes clear that extensions of existing lines would be considered as new and separate projects.

Another bill (HF 1160) by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, would require a separate audit of the financial activity of the Met Council’s transportation division and CTIB, and includes a provision that the first audit must cover the first quarter of 2017 and that counties within CTIB could not vote to dissolve the group “until at least four weeks after submission” of the audit.

Gov. Mark Dayton would be unlikely to sign such provisions. And if the audit bill was somehow contained in an end-of-session omnibus bill that Dayton decided to sign because of unrelated provisions, CTIB might already be dissolved by then. Met Council Chair Adam Duininck termed the audit bill “moot” because of the timing.

Still, the bills illustrate how some in the Legislature are looking for ways to slow or halt the dissolution strategy. Nash’s bill, for example, reflects sentiments made clear during a joint meeting of transportation committees at the Legislature last month. If the state isn’t part of the decision-making on new lines, it shouldn’t be required to cover operating costs of those lines.

Duininck said his response to that bill depends on the intentions of sponsors. “If the point of the legislation is just to be a financial hit to our agency, I would ask the governor to veto the bill,” Duininck said. “But if the point is to have a policy discussion about how does CTIB interact with the Legislature and the state, then we just have to have that conversation.”

McLaughlin said the Green and Blue line extensions won’t be accepting passengers until 2021 or 2022 so there is time to work out the future operating costs of those lines and the share among governments. But he said he is confident that Dayton will act to support the CTIB dissolution and the construction of Southwest and Bottineau.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/16/2017 - 11:28 am.

    Republican aversion to mass transit

    Republicans appears only to want to have transportation programs that benefit them. That is why we have the spectacle of legislstors from Waconia, Circle Pines and Greater Minnesota trying to use road only approaches to transportation and prevent local units of government from local needs.

    We in the urban part of the metro need transit. If our representatives vote to tax us a small amount to pay for it, butt out. We do not ask you to pay a dime nor do we oppose hundreds of millions spent on projects for your communities.

    In fact, Dayton has a much more aggressive plan for upgrading roads and bridges throughout the data – making up for the kind of neglect that resulted in the catastrophic I35 bridge collapse during the Pawlenty administration.

    You oppose such for one reason and one reason only. We would have to pay with it, with our large budget surplus and a user tax. You would rather give large tax cuts to the wealthy, many with second homes in places where they can avoid Minnesota winters. No trouble with that at all, until they want tax cuts to help them sustain the livestyles living in Minnesota allowed them to achieve.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 02/16/2017 - 11:56 am.

    Planning for both present and future

    A major part of our problem in getting a transit system that alleviates present traffic congestion and can deal with future needs is our lack of good central planning. The spineless appointed Met Council kow-tows before the counties and their rail authorities. And the counties and municipalities tend to see transit primarily as projects to promote development, not as a means of satisfying transportation needs.

    Meanwhile our metropolitan freeways become increasingly crammed with autos as we fall farther behind other regions around the U.S. at planning and implementing efficient transit.

    Unfortunately it is a fact that Commissioner McLaughlin does not want an authoritative elected Met Council that plans and effectively executes good transit planning, and I suspect that most of the other metropolitan area county commissioners agree with him.

    The system needs to change, beginning with a reformed Met Council elected directly as such by voters. And we need far sighted leadership that knows the true value of making a really good metropolitan transit system.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/16/2017 - 08:31 pm.

      Met Council Elections

      So I have to ask: why do you think electing the Met Council board would solve any problems? It seems to me it would just turn the Met Council into the same partisan bickering we see at the state and national levels. The Met would just break down into factions that would battle over every little dollar, trying to get a piece of pie for their county without making any effort to do what’s best for the region.

      And that’s the whole point of the Met Council. It’s a regional development body, not a county or city one.

      Unless there’s some compelling reason to make them elected that I haven’t seen yet, it looks to me like the appointed body is a feature, not a defect. Don’t mess with a system that works.

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 02/19/2017 - 10:28 pm.

      All you want is to allow

      The republicans to screw the metro on another front, mass transit. Nothing will get done with an elected met council – only the metro will suffer. End this outstate fraud – end aid to cities and move on.

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/16/2017 - 06:31 pm.

    Alternative approaches (and attitudes)

    I don’t live there anymore, but I grew up in the “metro area” when rush hour traffic was only a reality during rush hours. I decided to head for the country about the time rush hour started to become the Always-On norm.

    So, aside from my sympathies, the light rail fight has nothing to do with me and I don’t have any relevant views on the topic other than to say every time this subject has come up over the past couple of years, there are two things I always think of:

    1) How absurd the issue is; and

    2) The “Chunnel”

    I was reading a MinnPost article about the endless battle over the SWLRT when the big issue/current roadblock was whether or not to tunnel under, or build a bridge over, the Lake of the Isles channel (or just not build the thing at all because the people in Kennelville were all put out) and somewhere in the middle of it I thought of the Chunnel project and got curious enough to look it up.

    That Lake of the Isles tunnel/bridge crossing amounts to about what? A 100, 200, 300 foot stretch?

    Built between 1988 and 1994, “The Channel Tunnel is a 31 mile rail tunnel linking Folkestone, Kent, in the United Kingdom, with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais, near Calais in northern France, beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover. At its lowest point, it is 250 feet deep below the sea bed, and 380 feet below sea level. At 23.5 miles, the tunnel has the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world.”

    That got me wondering about the number of “track miles” involved in the blue, green, proposed Southwest light rail systems and the North Star line, so I looked that up and, as I recall, it came to a total of somewhere around 85 or 86 passenger rail miles in Minnesota.

    And that made me think of the Chunnel again and how, as it says on the Eurostar web site:

    “The Chunnel is just the beginning.

    “The best way to travel between the heart of London and Paris or Brussels, Eurostar trains carry more travelers between its destinations than all airlines traveling these routes combined. And that’s not surprising, considering Eurostar’s city-center terminals, record-breaking travel times, choice of frequent departures, and classes of service (Economy, Comfort, Premier) catering to all budgets and the unique needs of the modern traveler.”

    It also says, “Go From London to Paris: Fares Start at $70.”

    And, after looking at those “record-breaking travel times,” it made me think about how you and I could meet for breakfast in London, get on the train around 8:00, be in Paris in plenty of time for lunch, after which we could do whatever for two or three hours, get back on the train and be back in London in time to meet friends for a couple glasses of our favorite beverage before heading out to dinner and an evening’s entertainment.

    Or, in keeping with what that Eurostar headline said about the Chunnel being just the beginning, instead of heading back to London, a person could continue on to any of the array of destinations in the 28 countries the Eurorail system rambles through.

    Or, as the Eurorail people put it, “Watch Europe’s landscapes and vivid scenery change by the minute, right outside your train window. See world-famous sites and hidden gems. All this and more is possible with Eurail.”

    Obviously, Minnesota’s not a country, but still . . . Less than 90 miles of passenger rail in how many years or decades?

    I have no idea when it all got started in Europe or how they had the enlightened foresight and (cooperative, collaborative) ability to build such an incredible rail system, but however they did it I’m pretty sure they didn’t get it done by fighting tooth and nail over every mile of line, every quarter- or half-cent of sales tax, county by county, local unit of government by local unit of government, regional board by board and rural state legislator by metro state legislator making “principled stand” after “principled stand” and on and on and on, year after year after year.

    No doubt there would be massive (tooth and nail) “GOP opposition,” but I suggest passage of a bill that appropriates a couple million dollars to make it possible for every state legislator to make a (travel expert-planned and guided) rail tour of Europe (starting in London) just to provide some real world insight and feel for what’s actually possible and how beneficial a comprehensive (metro area and beyond) passenger rail system could be.

    And, in the case of hard core GOP ideologues, to get them some real world perspective on what it is they’re fighting so hard to prevent.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/16/2017 - 09:43 pm.

    Mixed feelings

    I understand that this is essentially a ploy to get around a funding obstacle, and on that basis, I could give it reluctant support, but the operative word there is “reluctant.” I’m not enthused about abandoning a regional entity, even for a plausible and worthwhile reason, when the end result is falling back to more localized—and thus parochial—control. Municipalities and counties generally place their own needs ahead of the region when it comes to expensive public services, and while this move might make more funds available for transit in the short term, putting the power back in the hands of county commissioners instead of a regional agency could easily result, in the long run, in even more difficult financial straits when one or more counties decide their parochial interests aren’t being well-enough served by whatever is going on in transit projects, and they withhold their piece of the funding pie.

    As for rural legislators long-standing and well-documented hostility to mass transit, if we applied that same logic across the board, rural Minnesota drivers would still be on dirt roads once they left federal highways. We can’t sing Kumbaya and all be in this together on just the issues that suit rural interests any more than we can just meet urban interests while ignoring “greater Minnesota.” The Twin Cities metro needs—not just wants, but needs—transit to avoid choking on auto-induced congestion. We can’t—or shouldn’t— build enough lanes to provide every commuter with a hassle-free drive to work. Perhaps rural legislators ought to be reminded that, farm income notwithstanding, the state’s economic drivers are the Twin Cities, which already see far more tax dollars collected from them and their citizens than they get back from the state.

    • Submitted by Joseph Senkyr on 02/19/2017 - 12:16 pm.

      It’ll be hard to remind them of that, since they’ve spent years convincing outstate Minnesota that the metro is stealing all their money and keeping it, and anything coming from the cities that points out that that isn’t true is just liberal propoganda.

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