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By triggering the death of CTIB, did Dakota County save mass transit in the Twin Cities?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Dakota County Commissioners from left to right: Chris Gerlach, Liz Workman, Mary Liz Holberg, Mike Slavik, Thomas A. Egan, Joe Atkins and Kathleen A. Gaylord.

Dakota County Commissioners may not have intended to create a new means of funding mass transit in the Twin Cities when they voted a year ago to leave the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB).

At the time, they wanted to leave because they thought they were getting a bad deal from the regional transit-funding organization, made up of officials from five metro counties: Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington. 

Yet a decision once widely seen as a threat to completion of a regional transit network, in the end, may have ensured just the opposite. Dakota’s initial decision kicked off a series of events that has led to the dissolution of CTIB. But it’s also cleared the way for the construction of several billion dollars of light rail and bus rapid transit projects over the next decade or more.

What the death of CTIB means

That process reached an important milestone this week, when commissioners in both Washington and Dakota counties gave their approval to formally dissolve CTIB. Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties had already done so, and at its regular meeting Wednesday, the CTIB board unanimously approved the resolution formally terminating CTIB.

What the dissolution means is that rather than the five core Twin Cities metro counties levying a quarter-cent sales tax and spending it collectively on transit projects, each of the five will now be able to collect up to a half-cent tax and use the money in their respective counties for both transit and roads. That’s because once dissolved, the counties can take advantage of a different state law available only to non-CTIB members. 

Going forward, Anoka, Dakota and Washington will continue to collect the quarter-cent tax. But Hennepin and Ramsey counties have already voted to double the transit tax and use the money to pick up the entire non-federal share for pending projects.

Those projects include Southwest LRT from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie; the Bottineau Blue Line extension from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park; the Riverview Corridor from St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport; the Gold Line bus rapid transit line from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury; and the Rush Line BRT project from St. Paul to Hinckley.

The big question now becomes whether the federal government will maintain its traditional role of equal funding partner in such lines — hardly a sure thing in the current administration. But the move does offer a way for local officials to bypass opposition to light rail projects in the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

Pulling the plug

The Dakota Commissioners have spent the last year being criticised by other metro politicians for voting to leave CTIB, a move that was dubbed as selfish and anti-regionalist. That initial decision required the county to wait until the end of 2018 to formally leave, and to keep contributing its sales tax collections to projects in other counties while it was still a member of the organization. 

The move to kill off CTIB, led by Hennepin and Ramsey County officials, changed all that. Knowing they could veto the dissolution — and kill the ability of Hennepin and Ramsey to increase sales taxes as a means of funding light rail and bus rapid transit projects — Dakota drove a bargain that gave it a sizeable share of the CTIB’s cash assets. By joining the mass exodus now, Dakota also gets to keep its sales tax revenue starting this October.

“We’ve gone through a whole cycle of vilification and then finally a recognition that if we do this right there will be more money in the system for transportation and more flexibility to try to deal with the future,” said Dakota County Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord. 

While some have compared the dissolution of CTIB to a divorce, Commissioner Joe Atkins used a more-morbid analogy, one he said came to him while waiting alone in a room during the late-night negotiations that arrived at the final deal.

“I felt like I was in a hospital waiting room,” he said. “We all knew that CTIB as an organization was dying. So it’s nice as a family to have reached some conclusion on how to pull the plug and end life support.”

Advice from Minneapolis

Only two people testified in person Tuesday at the Dakota County board meeting on the county’s decision Both from Minneapolis and both were opponents of the Southwest LRT. Both urged the board to reject the dissolution resolution, stay in CTIB and block construction of the massive light rail project. 

“What you’re really voting on today when you decide whether or not to leave CTIB is whether to continue building obsolete light rail systems that are enormously expensive, that are 19th Century technology,” said Bob “Again” Carney. “If you vote not to leave CTIB, that will shut down the current light rail plan.” 

But Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg said the county would be required to pay up to $50 million into CTIB by the end of 2018 if it forces the group to stay together. By supporting dissolution, the county could gain up to $50 million in taxes that it gets to keep and in money from the settlement its commissioners negotiated.

“While I understand his plea and his frustrations,” she said of Carney, “the reality is the benefits to Dakota taxpayers from a $50 million in the hole to a lot of money … that swing is just something that no amount of regionalism value can overcome.”

Commission Chair Mike Slavik noted that it was 365 days ago that the board voted to leave CTIB because a majority didn’t think the county got enough back in projects compared to what it paid in in taxes. But he said the county’s taxpayers have pitched in a lot in the nine years of CTIB’s existence.

“We’re still being regional partners, to the tune of $50 million over the life of CTIB,” Slavik said. 

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