Transportation advocates disappointed by session

Highway traffic
Lawmakers approved a "lights on" budget that will allow existing road projects to continue, but won't allow transportation officials to add to the projects list.
MPR file photo

The transportation budget that passed supplies about $3.3 billion over two years for the state's road, bridge and transit needs. That's about half of what many, including the state, say is needed to keep up and make progress.

Disappointment with the result has put the state's transportation interests in a testy mood, starting with MnDOT's Bob McFarlin.

McFarlin says the base budget keeps funding for some projects going for the next two years, including the big one -- the rebuilding of the Crosstown Commons in south Minneapolis, the intersection of state Highway 62 with Interstate 35W.

Metro bus
Metro Transit officials say there are more than 800 buses and 30 light rail cars in service every weekday. The state transportation budget does not provide any money for transit expansion in the next two years.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Not part of the "lights on" measure is the governor's proposal to borrow nearly $2 billion over the next 10 years for transportation projects.

"There were 25 major projects that would have been accelerated under that plan," McFarlin said. "Unfortunately, that was not approved by Legislature."

What drivers in the Twin Cities northwestern suburbs will not be seeing is a solution to the Devils Triangle bottleneck, where highways 81 and 169 connect.

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And that's just the beginning of the bad news, says Margaret Donahue, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, the state's largest and oldest transportation advocacy group.

"The 169/494 interchange that had been delayed won't get done," Donahue noted. "Highway 100 won't get done, 610 won't get done, Highway 10 won't get done."

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson says too many new taxes eventually torpedoed agreement on a transportation bill.

"There were 25 major projects that would have been accelerated under that plan."

Two-thirds of the lawmakers voted for the bill, which included a five-cent-a-gallon tax increase. That bill was vetoed last week by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But as the legislative clock wound down, not enough of them voted to override the veto.

Olson says support for the bill dropped off because it also included proposals for a fuel surcharge and optional county sales taxes.

"There was a whole host of other revenue sources, and the more you add things like that to a bill, the more opponents you pick up," Olson said.

The "lights on" transportation budget keeps buses and trains running, but with no money for expansion.

Supporters of the planned Central Corridor light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul wanted $40 million in bonding, but lost out.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, head of the agency which owns and operates much of the Twin Cities public bus and rail system, calls the transportation budget a "lights flickering on" measure.

Bell says it won't mean cuts in service or fare increases. But he says the budget throws a wrench into plans to use money from the motor vehicle sales tax for transit expansion, including the Central Corridor light rail project.

"Some of the money we will receive for the motor vehicle sales tax constitutional amendment will likely be needed for transit operations," Bell said.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy's Jim Erkel says failure to agree on a transportation bill is a disappointment.

On the other hand, Erkel says, the "lights on," "lights flickering," "lights dimming budget" -- however you want to describe it -- supplies what Erkel calls a clarifying moment.

"A lot of people know who voted for what, who vetoed what," he said. "Then it gets down to, basically, what people are prepared to do about that."

One prediction is some who have been watching from the sidelines will now enter the Minnesota transportation funding debate.

More of the state's biggest companies need to add their voice, says Tim Worke, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, the group which represents the companies who build roads and bridges.

"They're not at the point where they realize that a poor transportation system does just as much to drive business away as a tax climate will drive business away," Worke said.

MnDOT officials say failure to pass a more far-reaching transportation funding package does not jeopardize any of the federal funds the state expects to receive.