State transportation cuts lessened under agreement

Road work
In a file photo, a bus drives on Washington Avenue, which closed for construction of the Central Corridor light rail line in May. The Metropolitan Council says an agreement at the Capitol on a state transportation bill means there won't be any fare increases or service reductions for services including the bus and light rail.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Minnesota road, bridge and transit advocates are breathing a sigh of relief; the transportation bill agreed to as part of the state budget agreement doesn't cut transit funding as deeply as originally proposed and even contains some additional money for road maintenance.

A statement from the Metropolitan Council, the parent agency of Metro Transit which operates the buses and rail system, says the agreement means there won't be any fare increases or service reductions.

Bill Neuendorf, director of policy and advocacy for Transit for Livable Communities, said the bill's 40 percent cut in state general fund revenue for the next two years is much less drastic than originally proposed.

Neuendorf said those deeper cuts unleashed a chorus of protest.

"This budget compromise appears to hear those voices and keep transit whole for at least another two years," Neuendorf said.

Still, the budget agreement does cut transit funding by $51.8 million.

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The Met Council said the agency will deal with the cuts by shifting some local sales tax revenue intended mainly for transit development to pay for operating the trains and buses. They'll also use some federal and regional funds and continue to draw on reserves to help pay operating costs.

The Met Council said it will cut funds to suburbs who operate their own public bus service independent of Metro Transit trains and buses.

Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce President Todd Klingel is pleased the transit funding cuts aren't as deep as originally proposed. He said more money is needed to keep transit a viable part of the Twin Cities transportation system.

"Transit needs to remain a very powerful force, and our job here at the Chamber and for the Met Council and others is to make sure that story gets told so the next time we have budget crunches we don't have undue pressure put on transit," he said.

Despite the less-severe cuts to transit funding, Margaret Donahoe, the executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said the state is going in the wrong direction.

Like Klingel and Neundorf, she's relieved the cuts aren't deeper. She's also relieved there's some additional money in the overall transportation bill for road maintenance in Minnesota.

However, she said the bigger picture for road, bridge and transit advocates is worrisome.

Republicans in Congress propose capping federal transportation spending to no more than what is collected from the federal gas tax. Minnesota gets roughly half of its road and bridge funds from the federal government.

Donahoe said the bill before the U.S. House would cut that by more than a third.

"There's no way we'd be able to keep up," Donahoe said. "Minnesota would be looking at a huge cut in federal funding under this proposal."

The state budget agreement answers short-term transportation funding questions, but there's considerable uncertainty over the long term.

State and federal gas tax revenues fund a large share of transportation spending. They're tied to the overall health of the economy — which is growing at a very slow pace.