A proposed move by Dakota County to scuttle its involvement in a powerful, if little-known, metropolitan transit board drew a testy response from the board Wednesday.
A Dakota County committee voted Tuesday to withdraw from the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which collects a quarter-cent transit tax from five metro counties to help pay for transit projects, such as the $1.79 billion Southwest light-rail line. A vote by the full board is expected next week.
On Wednesday, the conflicts that led to the county’s impending action were laid bare at CTIB’s monthly meeting.
“If I have a problem with my wife, I don’t file for divorce until we sit down and discuss whether to stay together,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, a member of the transit board.
Formed in 2008, CTIB collects the transit tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax from Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties to help fund the metro area’s public transportation infrastructure. But some suburban counties have complained that they’re getting less out of the deal than they put in.
CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin said he heard about Dakota County’s action late Tuesday, though he’d heard “rumblings” about a break before that. He said he volunteered to talk to the Dakota board about the benefits of a regional transportation network and to answer questions, but his request was subsequently “quashed.”
Dakota County, which is home to parts of the Red Line bus rapid transit line and the proposed Interstate 35W Orange Line BRT, claims that it contributed 13 percent of CTIB’s total transit tax between 2008 and 2016 but received only 7 percent of its capital and operating grants in return. Last year, Dakota County’s portion of the transit tax was $15.4 million, McLaughlin said.
Dakota County also gets about $9 million a year from a leased vehicle sales tax, part of the arrangement that created CTIB eight years ago, but McLaughlin said it was unclear whether that was part of the county’s arithmetic.
If Dakota County pulls out of CTIB, it’s unclear how the operational costs of the Red Line and ultimately the Orange Line would be paid. Currently, CTIB pays for half of those costs. McDonough raised the possibility of Dakota County picking up a share if the county breaks away, and Dakota County Commissioner Thomas Egan, a CTIB member, said he’s open to suggestions.
Egan told the group Wednesday the discussion about departing from the board has not been easy. “We have been operating under the assumption that what we’re doing is good for the region, but that’s been true only to a certain point,” he said.
Nancy Schouweiler, also a CTIB member and chairwoman of the Dakota County Board, opposes the defection and appeared visibly uncomfortable during the 2½-hour CTIB meeting. “I’m in a very awkward position,” she said.
Meanwhile, CTIB member Matt Look, an Anoka County commissioner, said “it’s inappropriate for us to be beating up on one of our members. There have been rumblings [of leaving] in Anoka County, as well. If people want to start pulling a thread on a sweater, then let’s go.”
Discussion over the way the state and region raises money for big transit projects has confounded all sorts of stakeholders of late — not just CTIB.
This year’s legislative session stalled when lawmakers failed to raise $135 million — the final local funding piece — for the Southwest project, which would link Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. Had the money been forthcoming, Southwest would have qualified for close to $900 million in federal funding.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck said he’s still hopeful a special session will be called to approve Southwest funding, as well as other transportation projects. If that doesn’t happen, the Met Council will explore other funding options, although he wouldn’t say what they might be.
On Wednesday, CTIB extended its own funding for Southwest by $4 million through Sept. 30 — but the amount did not increase the board’s 30 percent commitment to the project.
Last year, the board voted to suspend funding of Southwest if the local portion was not nailed down by July 1.
In a presentation, CTIB lobbyist Jeffrey Boothe said decisions that imperil local funding reverberate on the federal level in Washington, D.C. The Federal Transit Administration is a key funder of transit projects, and the process to win those funds is competitive nationwide.
“You are at a pivotal point,” he said.