Washington County wants more of transit-tax pie

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2008 - 8:33 PM

It would get $1 million despite collecting over $4 million. That's not enough, commissioners say.

Washington County appears to be standing alone in its rebellion over how money collected from a new metrowide transit sales tax will be distributed.

Commissioners voted 3-2 this spring to enact the quarter-cent tax, which is expected to bring $100 million a year metrowide for transit improvements. The three commissioners in favor began to lose faith, however, when they found out Washington County would receive $1 million a year for three years despite producing more than $4 million a year in sales tax revenue.

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said Washington County needs a better return on tax proceeds to show residents that their taxes are being put to work. She said Washington County finds itself in a position of urgency because west metro counties are leading the transit race.

"Their projects are ready to go and our projects are still on the drawing board," she said. "We have not been aggressive enough in the east metro area."

Four other counties that voted to enact the tax -- Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Anoka -- all have projects in place that qualify for transit money, said Dennis Hegberg, chairman of the Washington County Board.

"There's a regional system that's going to develop here very quickly," said Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner who heads the new Counties Transit Improvement Board.

The Transit Board decides how money from the sales tax is apportioned. Votes are weighted according to county population, meaning that Washington County's two representatives, Hegberg and Myra Peterson, have a minority vote.

In a recent letter to fellow Transit Board members, they expressed concern that the board's definition of "transitways" limits money Washington County could receive for improvements. The county, with nearly a quarter-million residents, has little transit but is trying to develop ridership on buses to build a case for commuter trains later.

Washington County currently has a popular express bus route from Forest Lake to Minneapolis and back. That route, which the federal government financed after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, was meant to decrease automobile traffic. But because the federal money runs out in December, Washington County will spend its share of the transit tax money to keep the bus line going, Hegberg said.

That will leave no money for other projects such as park-and-ride transit centers or his personal preference, an express bus route from Forest Lake to St. Paul along I-35E.

McLaughlin said Washington County's threat to withdraw from the metrowide tax effort is premature because the Transit Board doesn't yet have a long-term financial plan in place. "We just have to make sure we don't let political considerations trump long-term planning," he said.

Committing transit tax money to construction of Central Corridor, the light-rail line that will link Minneapolis and St. Paul on University Avenue, must come first, McLaughlin said. "That's the finger that reaches to the east," he said. "I'd argue that no project is more important to Washington County than to have that Central Corridor completed."

Dan Krom, the transit manager in Dakota County, said that if Washington County should withdraw, less money would be available metrowide for projects.

"It shrinks the pie for everybody," he said.

In a related argument, Washington County commissioners have criticized the Metropolitan Council for leaving the county out of long-range transit planning. Peterson, at a recent County Board meeting, asked for a "strident" response to the council's 2030 plan.

"That's not true," said Peter Bell, the Met Council's chairman. He said the council is moving on transit aggressively and is planning for four transit improvements in Washington County including the I-94 corridor and an express bus route along Hwy. 36.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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