Despite agreement on gas tax, gov. candidates have varied plans for transportation

Exiting the train
The next governor of Minnesota will hve to decided the future of light rail and bus transit in the state, especially if Democrats lose control of the U.S. House.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The candidates for Minnesota governor appear to agree on major transportation issues: They all oppose a gas tax increase, they favor more borrowing and they support bus transit. But dig a little deeper and the three diverge on the details of all those issues.

Republican Tom Emmer, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner and Democrat Mark Dayton all agree this is not the time to raise Minnesota's gasoline tax.

Beyond that however, Emmer sounds a familiar campaign theme.

He says money for transportation will come as the state does more to encourage business growth.

"That's the way you solve it, you don't keep raising the tax and driving away the business, let's grow the business so we collect more of the revenue," Emmer said.

State transportation officials estimate Minnesota is short about a billion dollars or more a year in keeping up with road and bridge needs. That puts a spotlight on another major revenue source, borrowing.

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The Pawlenty administration has relied heavily on borrowing to fund road and bridge projects. The three gubernatorial candidates agree borrowing is an important revenue source.

Democrat Mark Dayton said before he commits to a transportation spending plan that includes borrowing, he'd create what he calls a transportation finance panel for ideas.

Dayton said the panels would be used to find out the scope of the state's transportation financing needs and then make recommendations about how best to fund them.

Independence Party candidate Tom Horner isn't calling for a panel, but he makes a similar argument.

At a candidate debate focusing on transportation, Horner said the state needs to first set the state's transportation priorities, then figure out how to pay for them.

"Is it a user fee, is it a toll road, is it some of the creative things that are already happening in Minnesota, or is it an increased tax, or is it bonding?" Horner said.

On transit, the candidates at first glance appear to agree on expanding service. For example, they all like buses.

Tom Emmer said he's actually a bus commuter from time to time, riding from his western suburban Twin Cities home to the state Capitol in St. Paul. The difference that emerges, a big one, is Emmer said we'll have better and more efficient Twin Cities bus service by getting rid of the Metropolitan Council, the regional layer of government that overseas transit.

"Put it in a department within the Minnesota Department of Transportation or some other area, but Met Council itself is something that we no longer need in its present form," Emmer said.

Mark Dayton doesn't want to get rid of the Met Council, but said bus transit planning needs to build on a strategy already in place -- more designated lanes to attract more riders.

"We need to continue to build highways as MnDOT is starting to do now, where you provide an advantage to bus travel to shorten the commute time and again provide a reward in terms of less time for people using them," Dayton said.

The three candidates also have differing opinions on rail.

Emmer is critical of the subsidy to operate the Northstar commuter rail between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, a service he said costs too much.

Dayton supports expanded passenger rail service including the Central Corridor light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Tom Horner also supports Central Corridor but warns the line's efficiency is being sapped with too many stations.

"I do worry that we may be building what amounts to the Metrodome of light rail transit, where we try to do a little bit for everybody, satisfy all the interests, and we end up with a light rail system that is going to take 40 to 45 minutes to go from downtown to downtown," Horner said.

A major transportation funding issue beyond the control of the next Minnesota governor involves the makeup of the next Congress.

If Republicans win the House, it's unclear what happens to earmarks, including funding for Central Corridor and other projects, if Minnesota DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar no longer chairs the transportation committee.


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