Transit tax bears fruit as projects get money

  • Article by: JIM FOTI and PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 29, 2008 - 11:36 PM

Wondering where the transit sales tax will go? The north metro is a big funding winner, with a new rail station in Fridley, among other recipients.

Tens of millions of dollars from the new transit tax will bring a commuter-rail stop to Fridley, give the Northstar line $3.8 million in operating funds, and help keep the commuter buses rolling out of Forest Lake to downtown Minneapolis.

The quarter-cent sales tax has been collected in Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties since July 1, and the first grants -- totaling $86 million -- were authorized Wednesday by the new transit board that oversees them.

Elsewhere in the metro, the transit tax funds will build a park-and-ride station in Apple Valley and help stretch light-rail transit from Minneapolis to St. Paul. The biggest chunk of money -- nearly $31 million -- goes to the Metropolitan Council so it can address Metro Transit's operating deficit. This one-time payment is part of the state law that allowed the counties to form the board and start collecting the tax.

Operating grants totaling $11.4 million were also given the OK. Most of the money -- $7.5 million -- is going to the operation of the Hiawatha light-rail line, with $3.8 million for Northstar, the line that will run from Minneapolis to Big Lake and is slated to open in late 2009.

"We probably had an easier time this time around than we will in the future," said Dennis Berg, an Anoka County Board member who heads up the committee that evaluates grant applications.

Money for a Northstar station in Fridley was left out of both the federal funding for the project and the state bonding bill this year.

Officials at Medtronic, the medical technology giant based in Fridley, stressed its commercial potential. But the Federal Transit Administration would only allow the Fridley station to be built if 100 percent of the $9.9 million cost was paid with local funds and if the work wouldn't delay the line's construction. Now the station will be built.

"It was always on the A list, always a high priority," said Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar corridor project. "We just ran out of time to put it out there with the other federally funded projects of Northstar."

At first, Burlington Northern Santa Fe balked at the suggestion of a Fridley station because of its proximity to the Burlington Northern's Northtown freight yard, Yantos said. By the time issues with Burlington Northern could be fully addressed, the opportunity for federally funding the station had evaporated.

Persistence and intervention by the Counties Transit Improvement Board kept the Fridley station alive, Yantos said.

A Foley Boulevard station in Coon Rapids and another station in Ramsey are still possible, as is a commuter rail line to Cambridge, Yantos said.

"Right now, people in Anoka County should be very happy," he said. "The Fridley station will serve the public well."

$1M for Washington County

Washington County plans to preserve the bus route from Forest Lake to Minneapolis with its share of the new transit sales tax. That service was started with federal money after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, but now that the new bridge is in place, the emergency funds are no longer available.

The $1 million that the county will be getting in 2009 will help finance buses on Route 288 until the Metropolitan Council can take the route over in 2010, said Dennis Hegberg, chair of the Washington County Board.

Anoka County has agreed to help fund the service next year as well, he said after Wednesday's meeting. "I'm very confident right now," Hegberg said of the route's survival.

The grants in this first round have some immediacy, often because of state or federal strings.

The Central Corridor's application for federal funding needed to go to Washington, D.C., with assurances that the local portion was covered, hence that initial $26 million authorization. The Apple Valley station is part of a sweeping federal effort to improve north-south transportation south of downtown Minneapolis, and most components need to be finished by the end of next year.

The sales tax has been projected to raise $24 million this year and $86 million next year. A $20 excise tax on vehicle sales is slated to bring in another $5 million in 2009. Those numbers may be smaller because of the economy.

Peter McLaughlin, the Hennepin County commissioner who chairs the transit board, says the board is being careful in its spending and will avoid trying to issue bonds. "We want to use cash as long as we can," he said.

Staff writer Kevin Giles contributed to this report. Jim Foti • 612-673-4491 Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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