Proposed transit bill would hurt all of Minn.

Published 7:48 am Friday, May 5, 2017

The Minnesota House’s threat of a devastating 40 percent cut in Metro Transit operations in the next two years has eased back to a merely detrimental 10 percent cut. Unfortunately, that’s the best that can be said about the transit funding and governance provisions of a conference committee bill that GOP legislative majorities are taking into negotiations this week with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

This bill would do real and lasting harm to the Twin Cities’ ability to develop a modern mass transit system, which in turn would damage the economic vitality of the entire state. That’s the big picture that’s evidently eluding Republican legislators who say they’re blocking transit expansion for the sake of more spending on Greater Minnesota roads.

This is one state. The adequacy of economy-enhancing transportation infrastructure in every region has an impact on the whole, for good or for ill. Minnesotans understand as much, judging from the support for light-rail transit in the metro area measured by the April 24-26 Minnesota Poll. Statewide, 54 percent of those polled support building two proposed new lines, Southwest and Bottineau; just 34 percent oppose them. Only in northern Minnesota did a small majority, 52 percent, oppose spending tax dollars on those projects.

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The GOP transportation bill would stop both proposed light-rail projects, jettisoning plans that have been years in the making, have won the support of local governments all along their routes and have already cost more than $225 million. The Southwest line is slated for a construction start later this year and Bottineau in 2018, and both are to begin passenger operations in 2021. Both lines are intended to serve the region for at least the next 50 years and accommodate a projected 825,000 additional Twin Cities residents by 2040.

The bill would also keep a financial squeeze on Metro Transit’s basic bus service and its fast-growing counterpart for the disabled, Metro Mobility. No solution is included for Metro Mobility’s rapidly rising costs. And by disbanding the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) and denying its five-member county boards the authority other Minnesota counties have to raise a sales tax for transportation purposes, the bill would cast doubt on the future of five planned bus rapid transitways. The bill would require the five CTIB counties to seek voter approval via a referendum in order to impose a 0.5 percent sales tax that nonmetro county boards can enact on their own.

The governance changes in the bill are a worry, as well. The legislation would cancel a joint powers agreement reached among the five CTIB counties and claim and redistribute the proceeds of that board’s existing 0.25 percent transit sales tax. That’s a brazen act of pre-emption that calls into question the authority of this state’s cities and counties to safely enter into joint powers agreements for any reason.

The bill also contains an overhaul of Metro Transit’s oversight body, the Metropolitan Council. Designed to be accountable to the whole state through gubernatorial appointment, the council would be remade into a 27-member collective of local government officials. That’s precisely what the council’s founders sought to avoid 50 years ago. By giving each of the metro area’s seven counties equal representation, it would tilt the council’s power away from the urban core.

There’s more than enough to dislike in the bill’s transit provisions to justify a gubernatorial veto. But if Republicans are sincere in their desire to see a transportation funding increase enacted this year, they’ll change course on transit before sending this bill to the governor’s desk. A bill this unfriendly to Metro Transit does Republicans no credit anywhere in this state.