Watching the sorry, stripped-down remnant of a bill they’d worked on for two years go down the Legislature’s tubes in the final seconds of the 2016 session evoked plenty of distress within the Capitol’s transportation lobby. And at least one sigh of relief.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was glad to see the bonding/transportation bill go.
Earlier that evening, McLaughlin had given reluctant assent to the funding scheme for light-rail transit that the DFL-controlled Senate attempted to add to the bill. The scheme would have raised Hennepin County’s debt ceiling to allow it to cover what since 2008 has been deemed the state’s 10 percent share of Southwest LRT’s costs — about $135 million.
It was “the last, worst option on a list of bad options to salvage the transit system we’ve been working for years to build,” McLaughlin explained. In the near term, it would have meant a property tax increase in Hennepin County of a percentage point or two to pay for Southwest. But the precedent it would set would cost county taxpayers more as the next rapid-transit projects, Bottineau light rail and the Orange Line’s bus rapid transit, come to fruition. And it would set a pattern of county financing that could make transitway expansion in other metro counties unworkable.
But GOP resistance to light-rail transit runs so deep that the House majority would not even let Hennepin County go it alone. House Speaker Kurt Daudt ended the session without acting on the Senate’s amended version of the bonding/transportation bill.
Thus, Hennepin County taxpayers have been spared an undue burden at least for now, and maybe for good. Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck, Gov. Mark Dayton’s top adviser on Metro Transit matters, says he would not recommend this scheme’s revival.
But if not “leave it to Hennepin,” what is to be done about transit funding?
Will the Legislature block the completion of a rapid transit network that more than a generation of Twin Cities planners have deemed critical to an optimal state economy? Will legislators insist that the Twin Cities aim to be more like the “cold Omaha” that Hubert Humphrey once scorned, rather than strive to play in the Denver-Seattle-Dallas big league?
Or will Greater Minnesota legislators come to see that the surest way to secure the road funding their region needs is to forge a new “One Minnesota” alliance with the metro area? Something like: Metro drivers will help pay for better rural roads and bridges (as they already do) in exchange for Greater Minnesota’s willingness to let the metro area do its transit thing.
The metro transit thing, says McLaughlin, should be financed the way cities like Denver do — with a metro-area sales tax.
“It’s the proven model,” he said. “A sales tax is a reliable source of revenue. It generates enough revenue so that the state general fund will be off the hook. Transit won’t be competing with other state priorities. It puts the tax in the metro area, where it belongs. But plenty of the people who will pay it are nonresidents who come to the metro area and use our services. They’ll benefit from transit while they’re here. That’s fair.”
McLaughlin and his Metro Transit allies are willing to make a transit-dedicated metro sales tax a county option. They’re well aware that one or more suburban counties might not opt in. They’re well aware that the county commissioners who vote for a tax increase would come under “no new taxes” fire. They consider completion of the Twin Cities’ rapid transit network a prize that’s worth those risks.
Their willingness to shoulder that much responsibility should impress even rail-averse Republicans. With his willingness to call a special session for bonding and transportation, the governor is offering GOP legislators a chance to put to rest a transportation funding quarrel that has vexed this state for more than 20 years. At little political cost to themselves, Republican legislators can give the metro area the mobility it needs while exacting from the DFL governor and Senate a road funding boost financed their way, with comparatively little new revenue.
Instead of prolonging a bitter metro-outstate fight — and watching roads crumble, traffic worsen and costs rise — the 2016 Legislature can still be a problem-solver. Instead of telling this fall’s voters about what they stopped — a gas-tax increase and a “train to Minneapolis” — House Republicans can opt for a positive campaign that touts what they started. They can still be contributors to the 21st-century renewal of Minnesota’s 158-year formula for success — its ability to function as one state.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.