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$6B transportation package passed mostly along party lines

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The Legislature passed a nearly $6 billion funding package for transportation in its special session. 

Supporters say it provides significant new money for roads, bridges and transit without raising taxes or fees, but critics think it relies too much on general fund dollars and doesn't address long-term needs. 

"First I would just like to say that a vote for this bill is a vote for the largest, most robust transportation bill in the history of the state of Minnesota'" said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chief author of the package in the House.

Support for the bill was largely along partisan lines, but did get some DFL votes in the Senate.

The bill dedicates about $300 million in general fund dollars to transportation. DFLers oppose using that money, saying the state needs a dedicated source of funding like an increase in the state gas tax or license tab fees.

"This transportation funding package raids education, it raids our social safety nets, it raids every other responsibility that we're charged with providing for the people of Minnesota," said Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko. 

The final agreement does ease some concerns about potential cuts to transit. Earlier versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate would have left the Metropolitan Council with a substantial funding shortfall. 

The Metropolitan Council provides bus and light rail service in the Twin Cities metro. It's facing rising costs due to inflation and growing demand from an aging population for its Metro Mobility service.

The final version provides a one-time payment of $70 million for the Met Council. Torkelson says that money should stave off any transit cuts for the next two years. But the bill doesn't address the long-term funding issues. 

"While we hear a lot about rail, it's the local bus service that's being eviscerated in this bill," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

Hornstein said the bill leaves Metro Transit with a $100 million shortfall in two years. That could lead to a reduction of about one third of local bus routes at a time when bus ridership is increasing.

"It's one time money and doesn't fill the gap, and would then sort of precipitate a really significant gap in the next biennium," said Jessica Treat, executive director of Transit for Liveable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips. "So it's really kind of almost a dimmer switch sort of on transit and slowly starving the system."

If there are future cuts to transit services, Treat said, they would hit certain parts of the population harder.

"We've been hearing a lot from seniors, people with disabilities, low-income families," she said. "We know in our state a lot of that low-income families, communities of color are overrepresented there. So those are sort of the population that we're seeing this would really impact the most."

The bill calls for the state to continue paying half the annual operating costs for the Blue and Green light rail lines. But it makes clear the state won't pay any of the operating costs for the Southwest light rail line, if it's built.

On the House floor, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said Minnesota is out of step with other states and major Midwest cities investing in transit.

"Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver. Everyone is moving ahead robust systems of public mass transit and inter-city passenger rail," she said. "In states with Republican governors and Republican legislatures, they get this. They get that transportation alternatives are part of what our citizens are looking for."

The bill now awaits action by Gov. Mark Dayton. Opponents are calling on the governor to veto all the budget bills passed by the Legislature.