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House GOP reboots roads plan, shifts transit costs

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Minnesota House Republicans on Tuesday rebooted a plan to devote existing tax dollars and to ramp up borrowing to pay for billions of dollars in road construction.

The proposal outlined at a Capitol news conference has similarities to a bill majority Republicans pressed last year that fell short of the finish line. It would redirect $450 million in auto-related sales taxes and sell more than $1 billion in bonds over several years. A new feature would impose a $75 surcharge on electric vehicles.

It follows a plan released by Senate Republicans Monday.

The House plan also reduces state participation in light rail lines by requiring local governments to foot all costs of operation and upkeep. In a related move, a collection of Republican lawmakers has urged federal officials to deny any funding for the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit Line, posing a critical threat to the long-planned project.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, framed the broader transportation package as the opening bid in a debate expected to stretch over the next couple of months.

"I know that this will not be wildly popular with the governor and others, but I believe it's a substantial and appropriate proposal, and I will stand behind it as we get this process started,” he said.

Torkelson said a potential constitution amendment is a point of discussion that would firmly move the auto parts, repair, rental and lease taxes into the transportation realm for years to come. Dedicating those taxes in state law only leaves them vulnerable to undoing in tough budget times.

“Overall, I believe transportation is one of the fundamental things that state government is expected to fund,” he said. “I have no problem making it a priority in the general fund.”

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has argued for a gas tax increase as the main revenue source for new transportation dollars. Torkelson said a gas tax hike is unnecessary, especially with the state’s $1.65 billion projected surplus.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, slammed the Republican proposal as "chock full of gimmicks" and said it doesn’t bode well for getting a deal.

“We need dedicated, stable, long-term funding to address our gap,” he said. “This doesn’t even address the need we have in the state for roads and bridges and transit. It divides our state.”

He added, “We have a long way to go if we’re going to reach agreement.”

On transit, the plan would require counties or the Counties Transit Improvement Board to assume all costs of light rail operating expenses. The state now shares in the costs once revenues from fares are factored in.

“It’s time to remove the state from the equation: if counties or CTIB want to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to operate new trains, they should pick up the tab,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines, another top Republican on transportation matters.

Meanwhile, in a letter last week to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 84 Republican legislators worked to slam the door shut on the Southwest line. The letter, signed by House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other prominent lawmakers, seeks to hold up $895 million that is essential if the Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie is to become a reality.

The letter says the project faces too many legal financial uncertainties and ridership questions to go forward.

“It is our believe that further investment in SWLRT as planned would be counter-productive to the State of Minnesota’s transportation and environmental interests, and would recklessly consume scarce transit resources well into the future for a project that fails on so many counts,” the letter reads.

The Metropolitan Council, which oversees the Southwest project, has yet to issue a response to the federal agency. But in a statement, it said the legislative transportation proposals would harm more than just light rail operations.

Adam Duininck, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, said it would force the agency "to raise transit fares ruinously high, effectively pricing most riders off the bus."

"These same legislators have historically claimed that they support transit, particularly bus transit," Duininck said. "Their transportation proposal suggests that they mean to undermine all transit, not simply light rail."