The message was clear: Minnesota must find more money for fixing highways and expanding transit.
But the solution wasn’t.
Dayton administration officials pleased transportation advocates at a forum this week by laying out a need for more funding. But officials wouldn’t say whether they will press for a tax increase in the 2014 legislative session.
Commissioner Charlie Zelle of the state Department of Transportation said the administration is “really interested in a very long-term, comprehensive solution that would probably involve more than a 5-cent increase in the gas tax.”
A package could include regular increases for motor vehicle sales taxes and registration fees, Zelle said, adding that the governor would like to “do something” in the legislative session beginning next year. But he cautioned Dayton is “very concerned that at this time this may not be politically possible. Facing an election … it’s just hard politically.”
With the state now expecting a big budget surplus, the governor could tap existing revenue to finance borrowing for modest highway and light-rail improvements instead of proposing a more permanent, larger source of new revenue.
But the indecision over raising transportation taxes also reflects mixed signals from the public and business community on the need for improvements and how to pay for them.
Metro area chambers of commerce that support spending more money on transit remain split on how to raise it. Minneapolis and St. Paul back an increase in the metro sales tax. The TwinWest Chamber in the Minneapolis suburbs supports using the state’s borrowing authority to build the Southwest Corridor light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, but not raising the metro sales tax to pay for it and other transit.
“You can’t look at transportation funding in a vacuum without looking at the impact of all the other tax increases,” said Deb McMillan, director of government affairs at TwinWest.
She cited $2.1 billion in tax increases that Dayton approved in the last legislative session and said her chamber might reconsider the transit tax if other taxes were relaxed.
Dayton made an effort to appease business this week when he came out in favor of using $231 million of the surplus to eliminate new sales taxes on farm equipment repairs, telecommunications supplies and commercial warehousing services that are scheduled to take effect April 1. Another $205 million should be used to cut taxes on the middle class, he said.
A poll this year by the St. Paul, Minneapolis and TwinWest chambers found that 57 percent of voters who live in seven metro counties would accept a half-cent increase in a Twin Cities sales tax earmarked for transit.
Yet concern about transportation problems may be waning.
A 2012 survey of Twin Cities area residents by the Metropolitan Council, which plans transportation projects, found that 19 percent named traffic congestion, road conditions and limited transit options as the region’s single most important problem. That was a decline from the 58 percent who identified transportation as the region’s biggest problem a decade ago, although it remains the single biggest concern.
When the state was facing a budget deficit two years ago, a Star Tribune poll found that 48 percent regarded transit costs as a prime target for cuts.
Case for taxing
The surplus gives Dayton the opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda for transportation in 2015 if he wins re-election, “framing it as unfinished business,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Zelle and Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh are hosting public forums this week and next in the Twin Cities area that make a case for more transportation funding.
Minnesota ranks 38th in the nation in the quality of state highway pavement. It needs $30 billion in transportation funding for state bridges and highways over the next 20 years to be “economically competitive” but will fall $12 billion short, Zelle said.
Haigh illustrated how 11 other metro regions approved transit sales taxes greater than the quarter-cent transit tax now levied in the Twin Cities area. An attempt by Dayton last session to increase the Twin Cities transit tax by a half-cent failed.
About 70 people attended a forum this week at the Minneapolis Central Library. One of them was James Samuelson, a transit power line worker and union activist, who sees a DFL governor and DFL legislative leaders as allies promoting transportation projects that create construction jobs.
“Now we have the right people in there to get this thing moving,” Samuelson told Zelle and Haigh.
But Zelle said he’s still taking the measure of public sentiment. He said Dayton told him to “get out there and listen to what people think” about transportation. As for funding proposals, “It’s kind of early in the process. We’re all very hopeful for . Whether it’s ’14 or ’15 … we need a long-term comprehensive solution.”