Washington County wants in on new transportation tax dollars

Hiawatha train
A light rail train, moving through downtown Minneapolis. Twin Cities developers say light rail in Minneapolis is a magnet for development and that's music to the ears of other rail backers in the state.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The board charged with spending billions of new tax dollars on metro-area transit projects is trying to answer criticism that it's not distributing that money fairly.

The money comes from an increased sales tax in five metro counties, it's already been pledged for projects like the Central Corridor light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But critics in Washington County say they are not getting a fair return for the money the county puts in.

That is why the transit tax board, known as the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) is expected to ask the Metropolitan Council Wednesday to add the Red Rock corridor to its master plan.

Red Rock would include a 30-mile commuter rail line from St. Paul, through southern Washington County, to Hastings. It could also be part of future high-speed rail to Chicago.

CTIB chairman Peter McLaughlin says Washington is in a different place than the other four counties with the tax.

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"They don't have a project that is anywhere near as ripe as the other counties. So, we're trying to find an accommodation for them that allows for some investment," McLaughlin said.

But Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld said the route is short on ridership - projections suggest only 1,600-1,800 riders would ride Red Rock every day by 2030, compared to predictions of nearly 5,600 a day by 2030 for the Northstar commuter rail, which opens next year.

"Possibly something will change; possibly development patterns will change. But for the foreseeable future, Red Rock simply doesn't look like a promising corridor for rail," Dornfeld said.

The Met Council is expected to approve its master plan in December. The transit tax board has already committed - but hasn't yet spent any - money for the Central Corridor and Hiawatha light rail lines, as well as the Northstar commuter rail project and rapid bus lines along Cedar Avenue and I-35W.