3 more counties OK transit sales tax

Hennepin, Dakota and Washington opted for the quarter-cent sales tax for transit projects.

In historic votes that could hasten development of new rail lines and bus transitways in the Twin Cities area, three more metro counties Tuesday approved a new transit sales tax that takes effect on July 1.

Hennepin and Dakota county commissioners both approved the quarter-cent sales tax -- which would amount to a penny on a $4 purchase -- on 5-2 votes, joining Ramsey and Anoka counties, which passed the tax last week.

And after an emotional four-hour meeting Tuesday night, Washington County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve it. Carver and Scott counties have decided not to participate for now.

In Hennepin County, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin hailed the agreement as something "that gives us a chance to create a transit system that will serve this county and this area of the state for years and years to come."

The new tax could raise more than $100 million in 2009.

Among the projects that could be aided by the tax are the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake, and bus rapid-transit projects along Cedar Avenue and on Interstate 35W from Minneapolis south into Dakota County.

The optional tax is the result of the transportation bill passed by the Legislature in February over the governor's veto. Metro counties that passed the tax will join a joint powers board that will award grants and issue bonds for transit projects. Each county also will impose a $20 excise tax on vehicle sales by auto dealers.

In Hennepin County, where possible projects include a light-rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and some type of rapid transit from Minneapolis to Maple Grove and perhaps further north, commissioners said the new tax will allow property tax support for the Hiawatha light-rail line and Northstar to be cut by about $11 million in 2009.

Supporters said the agreement will make the Twin Cities more competitive with Denver, Portland and other areas with similar taxes, which gives them a source of funds to match federal transportation dollars that in some cases could pay for half the project cost.

Voting against the measure were Penny Steele, who said it's a bad time to impose a new tax, and Board Chairman Randy Johnson, who faces reelection later this year.

Worried that the state's forecasted budget deficit could prompt the governor or lawmakers to divert sales tax money for other purposes before the session ends, the board also passed a resolution that said Hennepin County would pull out of the agreement if that happened. McLaughlin called it "a shot across the bow" to send a message.

Dakota County

In fast-growing Dakota County, where both population and road use are projected to quickly expand in the next 20 years, priorities include rapid-transit projects that would move more people and ease congestion at bottlenecks such as the Minnesota River crossing on Interstate 35W coming south from Minneapolis.

"We do not need to put asphalt across our communities," said Commissioner Willis Branning. He said highways should rank behind better transit as a county priority.

Commissioners Joe Harris and Kathleen Gaylord voted against the measure, saying there are many other transportation needs in the county.

Dakota County has competed nationally for federal money for traffic congestion relief. Officials said the county could get $133 million in federal funding to help with the development of bus rapid transit on Cedar Avenue. The sales tax money could help with the local and state match needed for that program, officials said.

Washington County

At least 175 people packed Tuesday night's meeting of the Washington County Board in Stillwater, and more than 60 spoke about the tax, with a majority opposing it.

Commissioners Dennis Hegberg, Myra Peterson and Dick Stafford voted for the tax, while Gary Kriesel and Bill Pulkrabek voted against it. When the vote was announced, there was an emotional murmur from the crowd.

"This is bad, bad public policy," Pulkrabek said before the vote. "If this passes, it will be the single most irresponsible vote this board has made, and I've been on this board for 10 years."

Hegberg said the tax "provides choices."

"Today we are captured by oil," he said. "We look at technology to solve our problems, but we haven't done anything."

Citizens speaking against the tax cited rising prices and lost jobs, criticized the Met Council as a money-hungry giant, and argued that taxes are too high already, while proponents asked that the five-member board look to the future.

"The money will go to special interests and will have very little effect on the citizens of Washington County," said David Morgan of May Township.

But Woodbury resident David Rooney said he didn't believe it was in the county's interest to remain on the sidelines. "Reducing the gridlock on a metro freeway is well worth the $20 it would cost me a year," Rooney said.

Some of the speakers opposing the tax said they'll campaign against commissioners who voted for it when fall elections roll around.

Hegberg and Kriesel will be up for reelection in November. Stafford, who represents Woodbury, is an interim commissioner and won't be running in November.

smetan@startribune.com • 612-673-7380 jpowell@startribune.com • 952-882-9017 kgiles@startribune.com • 651-298-1554

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