The Citizens League is looking for common ground on a divisive issue at the Capitol: how the metro area funds transit.
The St. Paul nonpartisan group released a 151-page report this week exploring the ways bus and train services are funded and offering ideas on how to improve them.
“People were eager to talk about the topic,” said Sean Kershaw, the League’s executive director. He hopes the “highly realistic” plan will “help break the logjam” at the Legislature, where transit often divides lawmakers along party lines.
The tome is the work of a 21-member committee representing the spectrum from the inner cities to far-flung suburbs. The idea was to craft “sound recommendations” that actually can be accomplished — instead of just arguing, Kershaw said.
Among them: A two-tier sales tax, under which taxpayers in cities with heavy transit use would pay more than those in areas with little or no service. The authors suspect this idea could garner bipartisan support.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck said the idea was floated during the 2016 session. “I was open to it then, and I’m open to it now,” he said. (Duininck did not serve on the Citizens League committee.)
“One of the main concerns I hear is, ‘Why should I pay a sales tax [for transit] if I don’t get any benefit?’ ” he said. “I sympathize, but even if you don’t get on a bus or a train, we, as a region, benefit from a strong transit system. It helps us attract and retain jobs.”
The report’s other suggestions include a transportation-related general fund account earmarked for transit, but with no reduction in the current base appropriation. Another idea, not wholly embraced by the committee, involves metro counties raising the transit sales tax to a half cent for transportation purposes and the state imposing a quarter-cent sales tax.
The report points out that short-term political and policy questions are “complicated” by global and demographic trends that will shape transportation policy. These include baby boomers leaving the workforce and living longer (while losing their ability to drive), and millennials demanding public transit.
Another game-changer: Self-driving cars, which “will certainly impact what we call ‘transit’ and everything related to mobility,” the report states.
The Citizens League effort was prompted by “lawmakers’ inability to pass a comprehensive transportation package” last year after a stalemate over funding for Southwest light rail.
Kershaw said the report will be given to legislators as well as Gov. Mark Dayton.
The league’s analytical team was led by Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council from 2008 to 2011, with former state Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, as vice chairwoman.
Kershaw said despite heated debate, everyone stuck with the committee to the end.