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Fare trade: Minnesota Senate DFLers propose summer transit fare holiday

The bill, which would order the Met Council to charge no more than $1 for bus and transit fares in July and August, was offered in the wake of a proposed gas-tax holiday, which many DFLers oppose.  

Minnesota Capitol, Green Line LRT
The bill would order the Met Council to charge no more than $1 for bus and transit fares in July and August.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

If a gas tax holiday is good policy — or at least good politics — in response to increasing prices at the pump, then why not waive transit fares at the same time?

That’s what a group of state Senate DFLers, most who oppose gas-tax holidays anyway, asked —  filing a bill to boost transit that saw ridership slammed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart
State Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart
The bill, Senate File 4443, was filed by Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Wayzata, and others, and would order the Met Council to charge no more than $1 for bus and transit fares in July and August.

“If we’re going to be giving people relief because of the fact that they drive a car, we should be giving them relief from the fact that they use transit,” Johnson Stewart said. “There are a lot of people who use transit by choice but there are a lot of people who use transit by need. They have to. So I think we should be fair. We should be fair with fares.”

The bill appropriates $1.5 million to the Met Council to cover fare revenue losses. Metro Transit reports that fare revenue averaged $8 million a month in both bus and rail fares in 2019 before the pandemic. Numbers for 2021 are not yet available.

The same bill would also put more money into transit shelter construction, push bus electrification projects and create a working group within the Met Council to implement signal priority for transit vehicles.

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Sponsored by members of the Senate minority and filed after cutoffs for committee action, the bill is unlikely to get much attention. But tying transit fares to any gas tax holiday proposal could survive.  Maryland, Georgia and Connecticut have already passed a gas tax holiday for the spring. Connecticut included a free-fare provision in its law, setting aside $8.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to cover the lost revenue from fares.

Twenty other states, including Minnesota, have bills before lawmakers to suspend gas taxes, though some appear to have more momentum than others. After being proposed in February by six DFLers — all of whom are running in rural or suburban districts expected to be election battlegrounds this fall — the issue hasn’t gotten much attention.

Republicans generally oppose the measure, if only because lower gas prices are being sought by Democrats to lessen the political impact of high inflation, though a GOP controlled Michigan Legislature passed a holiday bill only to see it vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Witmer. The idea is opposed by House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL Minneapolis, and Senate Transportation Committee DFL lead Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis.

Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz signed a letter urging the federal government to suspend its gas tax over the summer, something two Democrats in Congress have proposed. Walz said he could support a state holiday as well. That would require a $70 million transfer from the state’s $9.25 billion surplus or $1 billion left-over ARPA money to keep the state highway trust fund whole.

Opponents of the gas tax holiday say reducing per gallon prices  by 47 cents — the total of the 28.5 cent state tax and the 18.3 cent federal tax — would encourage driving and increase the production of greenhouse gasses. If the fare holiday increased the use of transit, holiday sponsors say that would be a good thing.

“What if people started to ride on transit who had never ridden on it before,” Johnson Stewart said. “They could find out how easy it is and that it’s not dangerous as sometimes we hear in the media. We already see ridership down. This could be a way for new riders.”