Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Why Killing a Mass Transit Funding Board May Be the Only Way to Save Mass Transit Funding in the Twin Cities

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Why Killing a Mass Transit Funding Board May Be the Only Way to Save Mass Transit Funding in the Twin Cities

Article excerpt

It may seem counterintuitive that the best way to fund mass transit in the Twin Cities might be to destroy the entity that provides nearly a third of the funding for mass transit.

But that is the strategy being advanced by those in favor of completing a network of light rail and bus rapid transit lines throughout the Twin Cities: to dissolve the Counties Transit Improvement Board — the five-county entity that collects a quarter-percent sales tax to build new Metro Transit lines — and let the counties go it alone.

Taking such a path would add to the complexity of funding, building and operating future transit projects, such as the Bottineau Blue Line extension or the Gateway bus rapid transit line. But, thanks to a quirk in state law, it would also allow counties in the Twin Cities to double the sales taxes they collect for transportation needs.

In fact, by leaving CTIB, Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington, Dakota and Anoka county commissioners could increase the current sales tax in their respective counties from 0.25 percent to 0.50 percent. That extra money — $80 million to $90 million a year in Hennepin and Ramsey counties alone — would allow many of the rail and BRT projects that now sit in the planning stages to be funded without any money from the state of Minnesota.

The maneuver would even provide enough money to cancel the ad hoc funding plan that preserved SWLRT last summer — the so-called certificates of participation that the Met Council had agreed to sell to replace state funds for the project.

The dissolution plan is already permitted by state law, removing the chances that it could be tied up in the conflict between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature over transportation, an impasse now entering its third year.

A step back for regionalism?

The plan will be presented to the House transportation committee at the Legislature on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday, the CTIB board will consider a resolution declaring its preliminary intent to dissolve the operation.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called the plan’s implicit rebuke of regional planning “not the greatest.”

“If you’re a protagonist for greater regionalism, it’s — on its face — a step in the wrong direction,” he said. “But as a regionalist, it’s a way to build out the regional transit system.”

While legislative Republicans have not been supportive of more light rail in the Twin Cities, McLaughlin said he thinks there is something in the plan that opponents could support. First, it would remove Southwest LRT — and going forward, light rail in general — from the legislative debate over transportation funding.

It also gets rid of the certificates of participation funding mechanism that has galled Republican transportation leaders, who have termed their use an end run around the Legislature as well as a violation of a pledge by Met Council leadership not to use them. The Met Council approved selling the certificates — a form of borrowing that pledges existing Met Council revenues of around $9 million a biennium or $4.5 million a year for repayment — last year as a last gasp maneuver to keep the project in line for a federal match. But the council decided not to issue the certificates until the summer of 2017 to give the Legislature a chance to come up with a different funding mechanism for Southwest LRT.

With the certificates, however, the Met Council met the local funding requirement by the FTA and now expects a full-funding grant agreement by summer. Construction on the $1.858 billion, 14.5-mile line could begin in the fall of 2017. But the bailout by the Met Council and Hennepin County mostly exhausted both bodies’ financial ability to replace state participation, leaving future projects in doubt unless other means could be found to come up with that 10 percent state share.

“The whole motivation is we can’t figure out a way to get that darned 10 percent from the state,” McLaughlin said. …

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