Dakota County officials are exploring whether they can stop contributing money to the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), an unprecedented move that could jeopardize regional transportation projects.

The powerful but little-known board pools sales taxes levied in five metro counties to fund transportation projects. In June, the Dakota County board announced its intention to leave, saying the county has put more money into CTIB’s coffers than it’s gotten back.

Now, commissioners are facing a dilemma: Until the end of 2018, Dakota County still has to levy a sales tax and help pay for CTIB projects, but it has less say in what the body does. To make matters worse, commissioners say, they’re facing retaliation for deciding to leave. Other CTIB board members ignore their questions at meetings, they say, and seem hesitant to fund Dakota County transit projects or collaborate on other regional initiatives.

“If this is the way it’s going to be until the end of [2018], it’s going to be a rough road,” said Commissioner Liz Workman, who chairs the county’s Regional Railroad Authority. “And I don’t think that’s fair, because they’re still getting our money.”

Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington and Anoka counties contribute to CTIB. Each levies a quarter-cent transportation sales tax and a $20 tax on new car sales. Dakota County’s share is more than $15 million a year. It contributed 13 percent of the CTIB transit tax from 2008 to 2016 but got just 7 percent of the pooled funds.

Though Dakota County will remain part of CTIB for more than two years, its commissioners worry that the county’s projects will get stiffed.

Anoka County Commissioner and CTIB member Scott Schulte said the transit board’s attitude is that Dakota County shouldn’t benefit from the transit tax if it’s going to leave.

“It sounds like there’s almost immediate retribution, from my perspective,” Schulte said.

CTIB committed $37.5 million last month for the bus rapid transit Orange Line between Minneapolis and Burnsville, leaving the Metropolitan Council and Dakota and Hennepin counties to fill a $7.5 million gap that CTIB was supposed to cover.

And the Red Rock Corridor, a rapid bus line from St. Paul to Hastings, also may be in jeopardy.

“I suspect that’s not going to get funded; I don’t know why we would,” said CTIB Chairman and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a zealous advocate of transit. “When your spouse says ‘I’m leaving,’ you don’t continue making car payments for your spouse,” McLaughlin said.

Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan said the board has asked the county attorney’s office to explore whether CTIB can fail to pay for projects while the county is still contributing tax dollars. If local projects don’t share in the kitty, he said, Dakota County may stop contributing altogether.

Larger ramifications

Dakota County is the first CTIB member to leave the 8-year-old body. To figure out what the county’s obligations are over the next two years, the county attorney’s office is turning to the joint powers agreement that governs the group.

Assistant county attorney Jay Stassen called the situation “unique” and said he’ll have more information for the board by its next Regional Rail Authority meeting. That conversation may be private to protect attorney-client privilege, Stassen said.

If Dakota County stops levying and contributing tax dollars before 2019, CTIB’s projects — including the Southwest Light Rail line, the Bottineau Blue Line extension and the Bus Rapid Transit Gold Line — could be at risk.

Such a move could also jeopardize other regional efforts that affect Dakota County. Egan said he’s concerned about joint projects with Hennepin and Ramsey counties, including upgrades to the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office and the East Metro Strong transit cooperative.

This summer, Hennepin County declined to participate in a Dakota County transit study meeting because of the county’s decision to leave CTIB.

“I think timing is everything,” said Hennepin County Board Chairwoman Jan Callison. “You just blow up the CTIB system. You jeopardize the Orange Line project. You do it on your timeline. And then you say, ‘And now, would you please come and talk with us about our road projects?’ I think it’s kind of tough.”

 

Staff writer Janet Moore contributed to this report.