Others’ Opinion: Legislators’ transit impasse puts more than just trains at risk

Published 8:52 am Thursday, August 18, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt may have conveyed a greater truth than he intended last Friday, at the conclusion of yet another fruitless meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk about the impasse over Southwest light-rail-transit funding that tripped up the 2016 regular session.

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“Frankly, the Metropolitan Council and CTIB [Counties Transit Improvement Board] are probably going to figure out a way to do Southwest light rail without the Legislature, and we’re going to lose everything that’s on the table right now,” Daudt predicted.

On the table: Bills delivering more than $250 million in tax relief through mid-2017, more than $1 billion in building projects and $700 million in highway projects. That’s the unfinished business of the regular session. Those bills won’t pass the GOP-controlled House if they include a way to fund Southwest, Daudt said. DFLers say they won’t pass the DFL-controlled Senate or win Dayton’s approval if Metro Transit’s expansion is omitted.

Minnesotans will soon see whether Daudt’s prediction holds true for the near term. Dayton and legislative leaders plan to meet again Thursday to make another attempt — perhaps a final one — at clearing a path for finishing the year’s lawmaking work.

It’s not evident that a funding mechanism that does not require legislative blessing can be found for the $135 million still needed to match federal dollars for the proposed rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The Met Council would need an additional revenue stream of about $10 million per year over the next 20 years to add that much to its debt load.

The CTIB is already under financial stress because of Dakota County’s decision to withdraw from the board — and take its 13 percent share of the board’s revenue with it — at the end of 2018. The board is already cutting costs. On Wednesday, it reduced its promised $45 million contribution to the Minneapolis-to-Burnsville bus-rapid-transit Orange Line to $37.5 million — enough for planning for the line to proceed.

The possibility remains real that for want of the final $135 million, the Twin Cities will lose its place in the federal funding queue and the $1.9 billion Southwest line will go unbuilt — for now.

But for the longer term, Daudt’s words could be unwittingly prescient.

Since the Great Recession, nearly all of Minnesota’s population growth has occurred in the metro area. If that trend persists, the metro area’s clout at the State Capitol will increase with each successive decennial redistricting. Over time, the metro area is bound to gain the political strength to win permission to go it alone on transportation — and maybe on a lot more.

What will then remain of the metro-rural alliance that has served Minnesota well through much of its history? That’s the larger question that should be on the minds of the lawmakers who huddle behind closed doors Thursday.

More than the fate of a few bills from one lawmaking season, or one transit line-extension, is on the line. A tradition of aggregating state resources, then distributing them to all corners of the state via needs-based formulas, is also at risk. The insistence of the Greater Minnesota-dominated House Republican majority that it will offer new funding for specifically identified road and bridge projects — primarily outstate — but not for Metro Transit operations or Southwest light rail breaks with a lawmaking norm that has served this state well through many decades.

Notably, while much of the anti-transit rhetoric from House Republicans has been directed at Southwest light rail, the budget bill that emerged from the House this year contained no funding boost for Metro Transit operations, and the 2015 House bill would have resulted in a 20 percent cut in basic bus service by 2020. Two projects related to the Orange Line totaling $37.1 million are included in the bonding bill that’s part of Thursday’s special-session talks. Inaction on that bill keeps a cloud over the Orange Line, though Wednesday’s CTIB action will allow it to meet a federal funding application deadline on Sept. 2.

Some Republicans evidently see squeezing Metro Transit as a winning strategy in this year’s election. But it’s not a winning strategy for Greater Minnesota in the long run. It stands to leave regional resentment in its wake, and lead to a resolve on the part of metro-area politicians to rely less on state government to meet Twin Cities needs. Over time, weaker state government could result, and that will be to no Minnesotan’s benefit.