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Business interests — which, reminder, helped fund candidates who oppose new transportation funding — now want the state to increase funding for transit

Keep MN Moving says it will push the Legislature to move ahead on a host of transportation priorities, including a host of transit projects in the Twin Cities.

Keep MN Moving
St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President B Kyle, center, announcing the creation of a new coalition of business groups to push for increased funding for transit. With her are Jonathan Weinhagen, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It’s one of the major disconnects in state politics in Minnesota: The same business organizations that have recently supported funding for transit projects (even getting behind calls for increasing the revenue to pay for it) are also major funders for the campaigns of politicians who are lukewarm on transit, dead set against light rail and oppose new revenue for transportation.

That divide was apparent during a press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol Tuesday, when the leaders of the St. Paul and Minneapolis chambers of commerce joined with the head of a transit advocacy group to call for more state support for transit.

The new coalition, Keep MN Moving, says it will push the Legislature to move ahead on arterial bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in the Twin Cities; fund more of the high-and-medium priority projects on Metro Transit’s service improvement plan; fully fund Metro Transit’s operation costs; and fully fund transit needs in Greater Minnesota.

And while the group’s organizers did not take a position on Gov.-Elect Tim Walz’s call for increasing the state gas tax, they did say increased revenues for all transportation is needed. Gas taxes in Minnesota are required by the state constitution to be spent on roads and bridges, though increased revenue from the gas tax could reduce competition for resources between roads and transit in budget and bonding bills.

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“The bottom line is that a better transit system will benefit our state’s economy,” said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “Good things are happening in our transit system right now. We’re here to amplify those positives and encourage the new governor and the new Legislature to make additional investments that will benefit the entire state.”

Despite the 2018 election that gave control of the state House to the DFL, a caucus that has been friendlier to transit than the GOP, the state Senate remains in the hands of Republicans. And last week, after an updated revenue forecast projected a $1.54 billion state surplus, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the revenue numbers should rule out any need for increased taxes.

“It’s good news. It gives us some breathing room. And it certainly is a time that we shouldn’t be considering a gas tax,” Gazelka said last week. “That would be one of the things this kind of a surplus says, we certainly can live within the resources that we have.”

Gazelka did repeat support for previous actions to dedicate half of the sales tax on auto parts to transportation and put some money into transportation from the sale of state bonds. He said those actions could translate into an additional $6 billion over 10 years for transportation improvements.

For transit … but against those who support transit?

While all but one of Gazelka’s members weren’t on the ballot this year, all House districts were. And the DFL took control by picking up 18 seats and carrying all of the battleground districts in the Twin Cities suburbs.

The party did so despite significant spending against them by business committees. The pro-business Minnesota Jobs Coalition, for example, spent $709,000 in independent expenditures (at least through the Oct. 22 reporting period) to help Republicans — and hurt DFL candidates. The chamber-connected organization Pro Jobs Majority, meanwhile, spent $1.38 million, and the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, which is affiliated with the Minnesota Business Partnership, spent another $824,000.

That spending reflects the focus on the broader issues of taxation and regulation — as well as the importance of  party control — when it comes to how election spending decisions are made. And business lobbies have not been effective in convincing the candidates they support to change their stances on transportation funding once they get sworn in.

Jonathan Weinhagen, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the political dynamics of the 2018 election but called for a different approach in the Legislature.

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“The four initiatives … have bipartisan support,” he said. “We’re working with people from all political stripes and from across the state to move us forward. It is time to hit reset on this discussion. That’s what this coalition is really aimed at doing — moving it away from a hyper-partisan conversation that gets used in a mailer to a discussion about how Minnesotans get to work.

“There is no room for an us-vs.- them discussion of last session. We want to bring Minnesotans together around a transit plan that moves us forward,” Weinhagen said.

Weinhagen said the politics around transit are helped by a seeming resolution regarding light rail funding, something he termed a “lightning rod issue.” Republicans in the Legislature have opposed expansion of light rail and removed the state from the funding partnership that helped build the Blue Line and Green Line. And early in the 2018 session, there was a move to reduce the state funding that subsidizes operations of Metro Transit’s regular bus service.

Some of that funding was restored, and the dissolution of the Counties Transit Improvement Board last year, which allowed the doubling of transportation sales taxes in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, more than replaced whatever funding the state might have chipped in for Southwest LRT, the Bottineau Line and St. Paul’s Riverview Corridor.

There is broader support among GOP transportation for bus transit and for bus rapid transit, such as the A Line running between Rosedale and Minneapolis that offers increased frequency, improved buses and stations, and ways to speed service such as some priority at stop lights.

Metro Transit is building a second BRT line, the C Line, from Brooklyn Center to downtown Minneapolis via Penn Avenue, and the agency is also assembling funding for a D Line between Brooklyn Center to downtown via Fremont and Emerson avenues and then to Mall of America via Chicago and Portland avenues.

Such transit improvements have resulted in increased ridership, said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a business-local government organization advocating for transit improvements in Ramsey and Washington counties. He cited the A Line, which increased ridership by 35 percent compared to the local bus route it supplemented.

Another success came with the merger of four transit systems in southern Minnesota that brought a 25 percent hike in use. “When we provide quality transit across Minnesota, people from all walks of life use it to make their lives better,” Schroeer said.

Transit’s public support

Keep MN Moving cited a statewide opinion poll commissioned by the Minneapolis Chamber that showed that 74 percent of voters support the state making “additional investment in expanding and improving public transit, including buses, trains and light rail.” The idea was supported by 92 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents and 54 percent of Republicans, according to the poll of 500 registered voters, which was conducted in August by Public Opinion Strategies.

When the same poll asked voters if they would still support these improvements if it meant higher taxes or fees, 59 percent said yes.

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Another poll, by the Star Tribune and MPR, reported that a gas tax hike of 10 cents was supported by 56 percent of respondents and opposed by 36 percent. It received majority support in all four regions of the state: Hennepin/Ramsey (62 percent); the Metro Suburbs 54 percent); Northern Minnesota (52 percent); and Southern Minnesota (55 percent).

Incoming House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, endorsed the new group and its goals. “I strenuously support this initiative, particularly the focus on arterial bus rapid transit, and supporting local bus improvements and looking at it as a statewide issue,” Hornstein said.

He also said he wants to push for extension of the North Star commuter rail to St. Cloud. The line using existing freight rail tracks now ends in Big Lake.

And while he said it is true that the Minnesota Chamber hasn’t endorsed gas taxes in the past, the local chambers have been more supportive.

“It’s not a monolithic business community by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. The state chamber supported the override of a Gov. Tim Pawlenty veto of a gas tax hike, after all, the last time such an increase was passed.