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Continued: Suburbs open to transit tax

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 9, 2013 - 10:09 PM

A DFL plan to yank two conservative suburban counties into a transit taxing district is drawing a surprisingly muted reaction.

Gov. Mark Dayton seeks to fold Republican-dominated Scott and Carver counties into a fraction-of-a-penny sales tax that has poured nearly half a billion dollars into light rail and other rapid transit options during the past five years.

Half a decade ago, both refused to join the other five metro counties. "To me it was always a power grab by Hennepin and Ramsey counties to take money from Scott for their trains," Bob Vogel, Scott County's former board chairman, said Friday.

But the reaction to the new proposal is hardly fiery outrage.

"I don't expect our board to take a position on it," said Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze. Scott County Commissioner Dave Menden said that he and his colleagues have discussed it, but that "I didn't get a feel yet on what everyone thought. It's a good question. I'm not sure."

If they aren't gushingly embracing the idea, civic leaders in both counties are willing to think about it and to hash over the details.

And in fact, even if the Dayton proposal has startled some, it comes after months of signs in Scott of anxiety about being left out of the metropolitan area's growing system of transit lines. Some of those signs include:

• During a retreat last summer, amid rumors that Shakopee's new mayor was quietly organizing a lobbying campaign, the Savage City Council informally agreed that it favored folding the county into a metro sales tax scheme.

• In December, the lead County Board member on transportation issues, Jon Ulrich, told a gathering of county civic leaders that they needed to lobby for changes in the existing legislation to make it more attractive to join. "It doesn't mean we would join," he stressed, "but it would remove a barrier."

Today, Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke says he's all in.

"I'm very supportive of Scott joining," he said. "The only way to make gains in transit and the whole transportation infrastructure, the only way to make sure Shakopee and Scott connect more to the greater MSP region, is by ... being a player and participating on a larger scale."

'Political hurdle'

There remains a big "political hurdle," Tabke added: "Telling the story as to why we need this, especially because you might be in for a decade without getting much of anything in return. But we are a part of this region, whether some folks want to be or not."

Politically, though, critics say the beauty of a DFL-dominated state Capitol bringing the two counties in would be getting something many local civic leaders want without having to actually vote for it.

Said Vogel, now back full time at his job as president of a bank in rural Scott County: "Local government won't make a fuss because they don't have to vote for it, but they want the money."

He's hearing nothing from the business community, either -- "probably because there are so many bigger objections than this to the Dayton tax plan that my sense is, it's buried in the details. I suppose the idea is to slip this under the radar while business is looking at all the big stuff."

But advocates of extending the tax to all seven counties say they have wound up losing more over the long term than they gain from being out of it.

For one thing, they say, Carver and Scott don't even have that much retail business compared with counties with major shopping centers. So they are by no means freed of the quarter-cent sales tax, which Dayton would raise to a half-cent. They still pay it -- but only when they go shopping in Burnsville or Eden Prairie.

It's also much clearer than it was five years ago, they add, that there's a real appetite for transit in counties like Scott. Express bus use there is setting records, exceeding 17,000 passenger miles in November. Younger riders love to power up the iPad en route to work, even as aging suburbanites find metro transit tempting for other reasons.

"I hate driving in the city," said Menden, the 62-year-old former sheriff of Scott County, who now represents Shakopee on the County Board. "The bus is so much more relaxing -- or light rail to the Vikings or Twins. I leave an hour and an half to get to St. Paul when streets are icy, and I always think, 'I don't see how people can do this every day!' "

Scott and Carver have similar politics, both voting overwhelmingly for Republicans, unlike any of the other five metro counties. But they're in different places on transit. Carver is already part of a lavish system of stations and coaches whose chief has called it the Nordstrom of suburban transit -- and one that will link seamlessly to Southwest Corridor light rail from the western suburbs to Minneapolis.

Scott still hasn't opened its first full-fledged transit station with indoor waiting areas. And Scott is in a much dicier place when it comes to quick connectivity with the transitway system that's slowly taking shape.

Divided minds

Since 2008, when the question of joining first came up, it has become increasingly evident how much Scott could be left behind. Due partly to the abundant proceeds from the quarter-cent tax, Dakota County this year is launching the state's first rapid busway system, linked to light rail. Washington County is getting millions from the tax for multiple potential lines. The last barrier to light rail into the northwest suburbs evaporated in December, when Golden Valley signed on.

Lobbyists stress that the ultimate reaction of a Scott or Carver county to a new transit tax will depend on precise details, like who controls dollars and how they can be locally spent. Carver administrator Hemze noted that his is a county where "taxes don't go over well, and we need to have pretty good, rational reasons for them," while adding that proceeds could be used to extend express transit services farther west than they go today.

It isn't clear how much effect the lack of the tax helps retailers in either county. Even a truck dealer who sells $200,000 vehicles shrugged at the impact, saying the effect of things like government emissions requirements and excise taxes are many times greater than a quarter- or half-cent add-on.

As for more conventional retail, "I have a hard time believing many people are driving out here to save a couple bucks on a TV set," said Tabke, who has been active in Shakopee's Chamber of Commerce. "But I do know I was stuck last night on 394, going to a Timberwolves game at 6:30 at night, and it was frustrating.

"To connect to those big transitways [that could one day slide past all that congestion] will take time, and we need to begin working on it now."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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