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Are GOP lawmakers at the Legislature ‘focusing on roads and bridges’ or waging a ‘war on transit’?

Minnesota House and Senate Republicans aren’t buying what the Met Council is selling regarding bus rapid transit, leading some DFLers to accuse the party of having an anti-transit bias.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chair of the House Transportation Finance committee, said he has been watching the A Line in St. Paul and agreed it has been successful.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have made it pretty clear they’re not crazy about light rail transit in the Twin Cities.

Over the last several sessions, they’ve not only blocked state funding to complete the state’s next light rail project — the 14-mile extension of the Green Line known as Southwest LRT — but they’ve passed laws taking the state out of agreements to provide future operating funds currently in place for the existing Green and Blue lines.

So how about buses, especially the emerging plan to build more of what are called bus rapid transit (BRT) lines throughout the region?

BRT incorporates some of the benefits of light rail — frequent service, more-comfortable vehicles and stations, on-platform ticketing and some infrastructure improvements to keep things on schedule — via buses. Current metro-area BRT lines include the A Line, which runs down Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. Construction has also begun on the C Line, which will run mostly along Penn Avenue North in Minneapolis.

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Gov. Mark Dayton put $50 million into his bonding bill request to help pay for construction of what is designated the D Line, which will replace the popular route 5 bus. It will go from Brooklyn Center through North Minneapolis and downtown Minneapolis, then continue to the Mall of America mostly along Chicago and Portland Avenues. Current ridership on the bus route is between 15,000 and 16,000 per weekday, but a new BRT line could carry 23,000 by the year 2030, Metro Transit planners estimate.

The agency has identified 11 other potential BRT corridors, mostly along the system’s most traveled bus routes in areas that are too narrow or too developed to accommodate light rail. Dayton’s request would also cover planning and design costs for additional lines such as the B Line, which would go along Lake Street and Marshall Avenue; and the E Line, along Hennepin Avenue.

So far, however, House and Senate Republicans aren’t buying what the Met Council is selling regarding BRT. Neither included Dayton’s requested funds in their own bonding bills. Nor did they include another $50 million Dayton requested for expansion of the Heywood Bus Garage.

All of which has been cited by the governor and DFL transportation leaders as evidence of an  anti-transit bias among some Republicans, not just an opposition to light rail.

“They want to destroy public transit,” Dayton said Monday. “They don’t want to fund light rail. Now they deleted bus service. … They want everybody in cars and pack them even tighter in their communities. People aren’t going to stand for that and people who have other options are going to go elsewhere.”

GOP: We’re focusing on roads & bridges

There are many more differences between Dayton’s bonding proposal and the House and Senate versions, especially since the Legislature’s bonding bills are roughly half the size of Dayton’s proposal. Yet the governor sees the omission of the BRT funding as another way that some GOP legislators are targeting the Twin Cities. “There’s a big partisan tinge to what the bonding bill does for Minneapolis and St. Paul and DFL strongholds and what it does for others all over the state,” Dayton said. “There’s got to be some balance and there’s got to be some common sense.”

Sen. Scott Dibble, the ranking DFLer on the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy committee, said the GOP silence on the BRT request is one example of what he has come to call a “War on Transit.” He adds it to a list that includes last year’s attempt to reduce operating funds for Metro Transit’s regular bus service; the ongoing criticism of light rail transit; the end of the state share of future LRT construction; and the proposed constitutional amendment to shift a piece of sales taxes to fund roads and bridges.

Sen. Scott Dibble

State Sen. Scott Dibble

“There’s not one thin cent for transit anywhere to be found in either bonding bill,” said Dibble, whose district covers southwest Minneapolis. “The Republicans profess to be for buses: ‘Buses are cheaper; they’re cheaper to build and cheaper to operate; they have the same kind of mobility benefits, etc.’ These things aren’t true, but it is what they believe and they say they are for buses. But there’s literally nothing. Not a cent.”

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chair of the House Transportation Finance committee, said he didn’t want to speak to decisions made by bonding bill drafters but agreed that he and other GOP lawmakers do prefer bus rapid transit to light rail.

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“As a caucus and me personally, we have been much more supportive of the bus rapid transit lines,” Torkelson said. “We feel we get a lot more for our money and it has at least the potential of flexibility should the needs of the region change over time.”

Torkelson said he has been watching the A Line in St. Paul and agreed it has been successful. And GOP lawmakers in past sessions have provided money for the Orange Line, a highway BRT project between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville.

This year, however, “our focus has been on the roads and bridges aspects of transportation,” Torkelson said, but he didn’t rule out changes as the Legislature negotiates with the governor on a final bill. “In the final days there’s a certain amount of horse trading that goes on to get things done. Bonding bills do have a habit of getting larger, not smaller. Time will tell.”

Because bonding bills require a supermajority to pass, the Democrats currently in the minority at the Legislature have a rare voice in the process, which often leads to concessions from the majority. But those concessions tend to be on the margins, as both the House and Senate require additions to be within the total spending limit of the bill.

At a Senate finance committee hearing Monday evening, metro lawmakers pushed for small amounts for local projects: repairs to the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis and renovation of the RiverCentre Parking ramp in St. Paul. But those projects amounted to a few million dollars, not $50 million for one project like BRT. (UPDATE: an amendment by Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, to bring the Senate bonding bill closer to Dayton’s, including $50 million for BRT ,failed Wednesday 33-34. SF 4404 then gained a majority on a party line, 34-33, vote but fell well short of the super majority needed.)

Dibble: Chambers of commerce are ‘completely incapable of delivering’

The Legislature’s move comes in the wake of an annual report released last week by Greater MSP, the regional economic development organization, comparing the Twin Cities to 11 peer regions. The region dropped from 6th to 7th in the percentage of workers whose commute is less than 30 minutes. Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jonathan Weinhagen explained the drop as evidence that other regions’ investment in transit is now coming on line. “Our peer set is investing much more quickly than we are,” Weinhagen said.

In Minnesota, however, transit has become a polarizing issue. “It is polarizing in this state in a way that is relatively unique,” he said. “We look at other markets — Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City — that are much more conservative that are investing in transit compared to Minneapolis-St. Paul region. It’s become a Metro v. Greater Minnesota discussion, and it shouldn’t be.”

Yet GOP criticism of light rail is likely to get louder after Tuesday’s announcement that the price tag for Southwest LRT has increased again, from the $1.858 billion set in 2016 to $2.003 billion now. And since the Federal Transit Administration locked in its 50 percent match at the previous budget, Hennepin County the the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority will have to pick up a $200 million increase in the costs.

Jonathan Weinhagen

Jonathan Weinhagen

Weinhagen, who had been an officer of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce before taking the top job in Minneapolis, said the tenor of the debate could be due to criticism of the Met Council and of light rail, which is why he thinks BRT could cut through that. “It’s a newer mode nationally, but certainly a newer mode in our region,” he said. “We think it is a reasonable transit investment that everyone across Minnesota should get behind.”

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The lack of money for BRT, however, has also exposed tensions between some metro DFLers and the business community. Dibble, in particular, had harsh words for local chambers of commerce who espouse pro-transit positions while being unable to persuade Republicans in the Legislature to change their stance. “They talk a good game:  ‘We’re all about transportation; we’re all about transit; we’re all about getting people to jobs and goods to market,’” he said. “But they are completely incapable of delivering even one nickel, even one word in any bill.”

“This is their Legislature,” he said. “They elected these people. They put millions of dollars into independent expenditures and right into the coffers of candidates’ campaigns. They own it lock, stock and barrel.”

Weinhagen said he had heard that criticism directly from Dibble and understands his frustration. “I don’t think he’s wrong, but I also don’t believe that every business leader in the state is a Republican,” Weinhagen said. “So I think it’s a pretty broad brush.”