Twin Cities lags competing communities in transit effortby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
They're whooping it up in Denver on Friday. Folks there are celebrating the opening of the city's fourth light rail line. It's probably a safe bet Twin Cities transit advocates are just a wee bit envious. The Twin Cities lags many other metropolitan areas of comparable size in transit funding. That's even with approval by voters to dedicate all of the motor vehicle sales tax revenue to transportation including transit. Many predict state lawmakers this session will once again consider a proposal for a metro wide sales tax to fund transportation.
St. Paul, Minn. — Transit advocates welcomed voter approval of dedicating Minnesota's motor vehicle sales tax to transportation including transit. But the money doesn't start flowing for nearly two years. When it does it'll start with $60 million a year for projects on the drawing board with a total price tag of at least a $1.5 billion.
In the meantime Minnesota transit supporters are watching other metropolitan communities eat what some consider a portion of our lunch.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St.Paul, a senior member of the House Transportation Finance Committee, says Minnesota's dedicated transit funding is the first step in getting what she considers our fair share of federal transit money.
"This year Dallas is getting $700 million of federal money to build their transit corridors. Dallas is one of our economic competitors. Those are your and my federal tax dollars going there too. And that is one of things we want to try to reverse," she says.
Way back in l983 Dallas area voters approved a metropolitan wide sales tax increase of 1 percent for public transit. Over the years Phoenix, Portland and other communities have followed suit. They're adopting a kitchen tested transit funding recipe.
American Public Transportation Association Washington, D. C. lobbyist Rob Nealy says the federal government favors projects in cities where voters make a local commitment.
"When the Federal Transit administration looks at these projects they want to be assured that the community is supporting this in terms of can they provide, pay for operating the system once it is built," he says.
The decision by Minnesota voters to dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation is a start. But many so-called peer or competitor cities have gone much further.
Voters there have not once but several times approved transportation projects with massive transit components. The newest one opens Friday. It's called T REX for transportation expansion. T REX is a $1.6 billion project. It's a new 16 mile stretch of freeway to fast growing Denver suburbs with 19 miles of light rail running down the middle. Funding includes half a billion in federal dollars for the rail component.
Denver Regional Transportation District spokesman Scott Reed says two years ago Denver area voters approved increasing an existing metro wide sales tax for transportation from .6 percent to 1 percent to help pay the bill.
"When you look at the growth we're experiencing, we're projecting another one million people in the Denver metro area over the next 20 years. People wanted to do something to address that in terms of the traffic congestion that is inevitably coming," he says.
The appetite for transit appears to be growing in the Twin Cities. Metro Transit is predicting ridership this year will match a 22 year high. Suburban park and ride lots are overflowing and bus ridership from them is up 11 percent.
A proposal for a Twin Cities area sales tax to help fund transit has failed in past legislative sessions, but lawmakers are predicting it'll reappear in the session that begins in January.
The 17 Metropolitan Council members appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty oversee Metro Transit's bus and rail operations. Metropolitan Council President Peter Bell says the administration does not support not a metro-wide sales tax for transit.
"I think the Pawlenty administration would be a hard sell on that," he says.
Bell welcomes the motor vehicle sales tax money for transit. But he's worried it creates a new problem. Bells says some lawmakers want to use voter approval of the constitutional amendment as an opening to take back transit funding that comes from the state's general fund.
"My fear is that the legislature will say all of your needs have been taken care of by the phasing in of the motor vehicle sales tax," he says.
The Metropolitan Council has an ambitious Twin Cities transportation plan including buses, rail and trails on the drawing board. Parts of the plan have been talked about for decades.
Despite last week's vote there's still no comprehensive funding plan on the horizon for building a system that many say is needed to help keep the region's economy healthy.
- Morning Edition, 11/17/2006, 7:20 a.m.