Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday left open the possibility that he would sign a transportation funding plan that does not include a 10-cent increase to the gas tax — a signature component of his transportation proposal.

“I’m not going to veto a transportation bill that’s satisfactory in other respects because it doesn’t have a gas tax,” said the DFL governor, who criticized the hard-line position of Republican legislative leaders who have stridently opposed raising the gas tax.

Dayton’s remarks came as the Transportation Finance Commerce Committee met Thursday in an effort to reconcile differences between the House and Senate transportation budget bills.

“I’m very hopeful that we’ll come up with a bill,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, following a wide-ranging two-hour committee hearing.

But it appears as if long-standing differences over funding for metro-area mass transit could still prevent a deal by the end of this legislative session — the same juggernaut that stalled lawmakers last year.

The House transportation bill, in particular, calls for deep cuts to local bus and light-rail service, which provided more than 82 million rides last year, according to the Metropolitan Council.

“I’ve heard lawmakers say time and time again that they aren’t anti-transit, that they support bus [service],” Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck testified. “What these bills do is the complete opposite of that.”

Should provisions of the House bill be adopted, the regional planning body said all Metro Transit bus routes — whether they’re express or local — would be reduced or even eliminated. Twenty to 70 of the system’s bus routes could be cut entirely, the council claimed.

Red Line bus-rapid transit service between the Mall of America and Apple Valley could be pared, as well as weekend service of the Northstar commuter rail, which connects Minneapolis to Big Lake. The council noted that Transit Link, the dial-a-ride service in areas without access to regular route transit, would be cut, too.

Several advocates testified the loss of transit service would adversely affect their lives. Brandishing a Metro Transit Go-To card, St. Paul resident Betty Lotterman said her transit pass was her “most-valued possession” because she cannot drive. Likewise, Amity Foster, who lives in northeast Minneapolis, said she takes transit because she suffers from seizures. “I wonder what I will have to cut out of my life if you cut transit?” she asked lawmakers.

Others testified against the $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail project, which would link downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. David Lilly, from the Lakes and Parks Alliance, which is suing to stop the Southwest line, called the project a “disaster” from an environmental, policy, safety and equity standpoint.

All told, nearly 40 speakers testified about transportation issues they care about — from milk-truck weights to railroad safety to bike paths.

Next week, the committee will get down to the nitty-gritty work of crafting a broader bill. “We need a transportation bill,” Newman said. “The question is, ‘What will that bill look like?’ ”

Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he was encouraged after his meeting with Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt on Thursday morning. He said the House, Senate and governor are “close” to an agreement on the transportation bill, including on issues related to public transit.

“The big issue was [funding for] buses, and we’re open to that,” he said. “We recognize that transit related to buses is important, so we’ll find a number that we’ll all agree with.”

Dayton pointed to other Republican governors and legislatures that have recently approved gas tax increases to fund improvements to roads and bridges.

He’s also proposed a half-cent metro-area sales tax to pay for transit, although it’s unclear whether that idea will gain any traction going forward.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 janet.moore@startribune.com

 

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