The 2013 legislative session may include some historic achievements, including legalization of same-sex marriage and new investment in early childhood education.
And now, after Friday’s surprise vote in the state Senate, the Legislature has a chance to add to its legacy by making strategic investments in transportation.
The Senate voted to raise the gas tax by 2.5 cents in the 2014-15 biennium and another 2.5 cents in 2016-17 to fund long-overdue investments in roads and bridges.
The state last increased the gas tax in 2008. According to the American Petroleum Institute, Minnesota’s current combined state and federal gas tax is lower than the national average of 49 cents.
The Senate also approved a half-cent metro sales tax, similarly phased in over two bienniums, for transit. Together, the two tax increases eventually would generate about $1 billion a year.
The metro transit tax is a version of Gov. Mark Dayton’s bold proposal to finally, emphatically, make a 20-year commitment to build a modern multimodal transit system.
Dayton’s plan also would levy a half-cent sales tax in seven metro counties — and keep the existing quarter-cent sales tax in place in five metro counties — but it would not be phased in like the Senate version.
Under Dayton’s proposal, up to $318 million in new transit-dedicated revenue would be raised in the 2014-15 biennium, which would be offset by $46.8 million returned to the general fund. In 2016-17, the plan would raise up to $472.6 million.
The transit spending would address shortfalls for current commitments and dramatically expand the transit network. It would result in more bus routes, increased frequency and more hours of service.
And over the next 20 years, a more integrated system would be built, including the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines, the Interstate 35W South bus rapid transit (BRT) line, the east-metro Gateway line (either light rail or bus rapid transit), up to a dozen arterial BRT or streetcar corridors, and as many as five potential highway BRT corridors.
The plan to accelerate the transit build-out would generate an estimated return on investment of $6 billion to $10 billion because of reduced travel times, lower emissions, lower vehicle operating costs, lower shipping expenses and other factors.
It has widespread support with key leaders in government and business, including the chambers of commerce representing Minneapolis and St. Paul. And polls have indicated that the public is on board not just in the metro area, but statewide.
The metro transit plan deserves to pass on its own merit, but the political reality is that to muster enough votes, any broad transportation plan needs to be balanced by statewide investment in highways and bridges. The Senate has created such a breakthrough. Now it’s up to the House and Dayton to break through the legislative logjam.
The Metropolitan Council warns that adopting a bare-bones, “lights-on” transportation bill would result in an $18 million shortfall in light-rail funding and an inability to expand light rail beyond the Green Line (Central Corridor) and bus rapid transit beyond the Red Line (Cedar Avenue). Meanwhile, the fate of state funding for Southwest light rail would depend on a bonding bill.
Delaying transit and transportation investment would put Minnesota and the Twin Cities at a competitive disadvantage while economically competitive markets like Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle move forward to improve transportation and expand transit.
Dayton has opposed a statewide gas tax increase, although he has yet to say he would veto such a plan. The House transportation bill does not raise either the gas or sales tax.
But with Friday’s vote, the Senate has sent a strong signal — and one Dayton and House leaders should seize in the interest of statewide investment in progress.