Met Council: House roads bill will force bus cutbacks

Mass transit
Commuters board Metro Transit express buses at the Park-and-Ride site in Woodbury, Minn., April 9, 2013.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2013

A $7 billion transportation bill by Republicans in the Minnesota House underscores the GOP's commitment to putting road and bridge construction before transit operations in the Twin Cities, House Speaker Kurt Daudt said.

At the heart of the Republican argument that transportation in Greater Minnesota has been shortchanged by transit projects in the Twin Cities is the Metropolitan Council, an organization that manages bus and rail services for the Twin Cities.

"Frankly, we want to see that [light rail] investments are worthwhile," said Daudt, R-Crown. "From our perspective, it's such a small number of people that utilize those sources of transportation."

Although the House bill doesn't directly cut the Met Council's funding, it does shuffle money around. Met Council officials said those transfers would require them to cut bus route funding by 8 percent, or about $28 million, in 2016 — with additional cuts in subsequent years.

When House Republicans running in Greater Minnesota talked about transportation on the campaign trail last year, they framed the issue as an "us-versus-them" proposition: They told voters the light rail lines in the Twin Cities area have come at the expense of road maintenance in rural parts of the state.

Minnesota's constitution dedicates money from the state tax on gasoline to roads and bridges. But lawmakers from the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas will not vote to raise the gas tax without also providing more money for buses. This year House Republicans are trying to sever that connection.

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But the House bill, which cleared an initial hurdle this week, would force the Met Council to cut services, said the organization's chair, Adam Duininck.

"When we think about our transit system, we think about expanding it and the operations," Duininck said. "The Republican proposal would hamstring both."

Other aspects of the House transportation bill also have Metropolitan Council officials on edge.

For instance, the House bill would require the Met Council to give a larger share of the funding it gets from revenue raised through the motor vehicle sales tax to surrounding counties for their bus services.

Counties in the Twin Cities metro area also would have to shoulder the entire cost of transit operations. Currently, counties pay for 50 percent and the Metropolitan Council pays the rest.

At first blush, that shift appears to free-up cash for the Met Council to spend on other things. But the numbers show that the maneuver ultimately leads to a net funding loss over what the organization expected to get from the state in the future, Met Council officials say.

Hennepin County Commissioner and Counties Transit Improvement Board Chair Peter McLaughlin said the shift also means counties would have less money for projects like the Bottineau rail line extension from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.

"The House bill isn't going to make the pie bigger," McLaughlin said. "It's going to limit our ability to respond in targeted [transit] corridors."

McLaughlin said that if rail and bus services don't expand in the Twin Cities, the metro area won't be able to meet the demographic and economic demands of the future.

Republicans aren't deterred by such arguments. House Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said he's been troubled by the fact that a large chunk of the Met Council's funding automatically increases every year.

Kelly wants the organization to argue its case for cash to the Legislature.

"Instead of just getting your 5 percent increase, come back and show us a base budget like everyone else," Kelly said. "Then we talk about our increases from there."

When it comes to transit, Kelly's bill stands in stark contrast to legislation backed by the Democrats in the Minnesota Senate and a similar proposal backed by Gov. Mark Dayton, which both include a higher sales tax in the metro area to pay for transit.

With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, Democrats in the House and Senate, who heavily represent the Twin Cities area, say they have a hard time seeing a transportation bill compromise without some funding for transit operations.