Dakota County starting to question its return on transit

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2014 - 10:58 PM

The county is rethinking place in alliance to expand light rail and bus transit as most new projects are focused on the west metro.

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The Cedar Avenue bus-rapid-transit buses feature level boarding, offering a similar experience to that of light rail trains.

Photo: , Courtesy Metropolitan Council

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An alliance formed by metro counties to expand light rail and fast busways is starting to fray.

Dakota County commissioners are questioning whether their taxpayers are getting enough back from the $14 million they pay each year.

“Most of the future projects — in dollars and cents — are heading toward the western metropolitan area,’’ said Commissioner Tom Egan. “We are making sure that everyone knows that we want to be a good team player but at the same time we are not fools and we want to be treated fairly.’’

Commissioners have not yet discussed the issue as a board. In individual interviews several commissioners said they are thinking about the arrangement.

The counties formed the transit board to create a regional system, said Dakota Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord. But, she said: “In the east side of the metropolitan area we are not getting quite the same investment that we see on the west side.

“I hate this east/west thing that we always seem to have,” she said. “But look at any map and you see trains all over the west side and buses all over the east side.’’

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a Democrat who chairs the coalition, said Dakota’s own mixed-party politics have gotten in its way.

The county’s Republican legislators opposed a rail route extending south from the Mall of America over the Minnesota River bridge on Cedar, he said. “They didn’t get a train. They didn’t ask for one. They got what they asked for.’’

All the member counties have gotten a good deal, he added.

“In six years [we’ve] invested over half a billion to expand the transit system in the metro area. We have things going on in every one of our member counties. I think it’s been an enormous success. Where would we be without it?’’

Future projects questioned

At stake is the future of a six-year-old venture uniting Dakota with Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties as the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB).

Starting in 2008, legislators let them use proceeds from a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax to advance projects of their choice.

The board helped finance the recently opened $1 billion Green Line light-rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The same is true of the $112 million Red Line Bus Rapid Transit service, which opened in June 2013 on Cedar Avenue between Apple Valley and the Mall of America in Bloomington. Both drew unanimous support.

It’s the projects next in line that are giving Dakota County pause.

A proposed Southwest light rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie has a current price tag of $1.68 billion. The proposed Bottineau transitway through the northwest suburbs from Brooklyn Park to Minneapolis is estimated at $1 billion.

McLaughlin said that Dakota may be forgetting that Hennepin County was the only county contributor to the Hiawatha line, now being used by lots of Dakota residents at the Mall of America.

“We paid for all of the investment downtown and all the electronic controls and now people can build on that,’’ McLaughlin said. Hennepin also put in nearly $300 million, or nearly a third the cost of the Green Line, he said.

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