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Agreement lessens transit cuts

Published (8/11/2011)
By Mike Cook
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Users of Metro Transit bus and rail service are not expected to pay more to get around the Twin Cities metropolitan area; but those who rely on Greater Minnesota transit should have fewer transportation options.

These are two results of the omnibus transportation finance law.

Sponsored by Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee) and Sen. Joe Gimse (R-Willmar), the proposal checks in at $4.74 billion in total spending, although just $125.66 million will come from the General Fund. It is about $63 million more than Republicans originally sought and $55 million less than Dayton’s initial recommendation. User fees and taxes make up much of the remaining funds.

The legislation, effective retroactively to July 1, 2011, includes a $51.7 million General Fund reduction to the Metropolitan Council for transit operations and a $2.7 million reduction to Greater Minnesota transit. The proposal vetoed by Dayton in May called for $109.44 million and $7.62 million reductions, respectively.

Metro Transit officials warned the larger cuts could result in sizeable fare increases, significant route reductions and the laying off of hundreds of employees.

Instead, Gimse said, the council came forward with eight different provisions to make up the difference, including shifting some local sales tax revenue intended mainly for transit development to pay for train and bus operation.

Permissive language is included to permit about $15.3 million from the Counties Transit Improvement Board be transferred to the Metropolitan Council for certain transitway operations. The board is funded with a quarter-percent sales tax in five Twin Cities metropolitan area counties. Beard previously said the assistance is not unprecedented, noting when the board was authorized in 2008 — its first $30 million went to the council to help with an operating deficit.

Additionally, the council can reduce grants to suburban transit providers, the so-called “opt-outs” that operate their own public bus service.

“This all helps Met Council put their plan together in such a way that they should have minimum disruption to their service,” Beard said.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) called the plan “an irresponsible budgeting approach” that takes Minnesota in the wrong direction and is a missed opportunity to build a 21st century transportation system to help grow the state’s economy.

“We still have a $51.7 million cut. Yes, we backfill that mostly with other dollars, dollars that are not meant for the purpose of backfilling Metropolitan Council local bus operation,” he said. “We beg from the Met Council in terms of rearranging a whole bunch of their administrative operations, we borrow from suburban bus lines and we steal from counties their local sales taxes.”

Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) said the bill will result in upwards of 40,000 fewer hours of transit service in Greater Minnesota. “A tough economy is not the time when you fail to provide people rides. A tough economy is not the time you tell almost half the people needing a ride in Greater Minnesota, ’You’re not going to get there.’”

Other changes to the 2012-2013 appropriations include:

• an additional $127 million from the Trunk Highway Fund is appropriated for state highway improvements as part of the Better Roads for Minnesota program;

• a $66 million increase in state road construction funding from the Trunk Highway Fund due to anticipated federal aid increases;

• an additional nearly $1.78 million from the state airports fund is appropriated in fiscal year 2013 for airport development grants; and

• state planning and research funding from the Trunk Highway Fund is increased by $1.42 million for the biennium due to anticipated federal aid increases.

A Republican plan to prohibit the Department of Transportation from expending funds for commuter and intercity passenger rail planning unless there are special circumstances did not make the final product.

With no money allocated for passenger rail activities, the provision would likely have resulted in the closing of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office, thereby relinquishing federal funding for rail activity. In order to receive federal funding, the office must administer existing agreements to ensure federal grant requirements are met.

To fund a new IT system operated by the Driver and Vehicle Services Division of the Department of Public Safety, the law extends until June 30, 2016, and reduces by 75 cents a temporary technology surcharge applied to vehicle registration renewals, various title transactions and driver’s license and state identification card applications. On or after July 1, 2012, a $7.1 million transfer from two DVS operating accounts will also be used for the system.

2011 Special Session: HF2*/ SF4/CH3

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