The new Metropolitan Council chairman said Friday that a better bus system is crucial to improving the region’s transit, despite the attention frequently showered on light rail.
Speaking to a group of business leaders in downtown Minneapolis, Chairman Adam Duininck and state Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle offered more specifics about Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation proposal — expected to be released Monday morning.
Duininck said the plan would raise $2.8 billion for transit over the next 10 years through an additional half-cent sales tax in five metro-area counties — slightly less than a ¾-cent increase proposed by Senate DFLers. About 60 percent to 70 percent of that would be devoted to bus improvements, he said, including bus rapid transit routes along highways and urban corridors.
“A huge majority of what we’re talking about in expanding the system is expanding the bus system,” Duininck said.
The money would pay for more routes, more frequency, real-time arrival information and 1,000 more shelters — many with light and heat, according to an accompanying slide in his presentation.
The emphasis on buses may be intended to win more support from Republican legislators, some of whom have been critical of massive light-rail investments.
Major bus rapid transit projects under development include the Orange Line on Interstate 35W, the Red Line expansion to Lakeville, a Gold Line east of St. Paul and 11 revamped lines along local bus routes. That is in addition to two primary light-rail projects, Southwest and Bottineau.
Zelle said his agency needs $6 billion over the next 10 years to make up a funding gap for road improvements. About $4 billion of that would pay for maintaining and modernizing the system’s roads and bridges.
The other $2 billion would pay for “strategic expansion of additional lanes, MnPass lanes, the interchanges that we know [are] not a luxury but actually a necessity to some of our communities in Minnesota,” Zelle said. Conversely, he added, “$250 million a year [$2.5 billion over 10 years] will preserve the system in kind of a crummy condition.”
Zelle said Dayton would propose taxing fuel at the wholesale level, an idea the governor has previously discussed. “I’ll just be the first to say this is actually the gas tax,” Zelle said.
The commissioner said the proposed gas tax would have a feature that could allow it to automatically increase over time.
“It’s a gas tax that has an indexing feature. … If fuel prices go above $2.50, that it actually would increase on an annual basis,” Zelle said.
Duininck said that the existing quarter-cent sales tax has helped to grow the transit system through large projects, but that it hasn’t done much for basic bus service in the Twin Cities. Buses on busy corridors like Lake Street and Chicago Avenue are so packed they don’t stop to pick up passengers, he said.
Duininck pointed to other regions of the country that have much higher transit sales taxes. Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and Houston have a 1-cent tax, for example, while Seattle has a 1.8-cent tax.
“I can’t say enough about the importance of this, both because of how it positions us to gain federal funding to leverage the money we have, but also because the clear trend line federally is that they’re going to continue to think about doing less,” Duininck said.
He said that while his agency still expects the federal government to pay for half of the Southwest and Bottineau lines, changing politics in Washington, D.C., make future federal investments less certain.
“The regions that are putting more of their own dollars in on the front end are going to be much more competitive,” Duininck said.
Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event, told those in the room that expanded transit options ultimately would benefit businesses — particularly at suburban campuses where it is harder to attract young talent.
“We love the shiny trains, we know that. But the backbone of the transit system is the bus,” Klingel said. “How would you like to be standing in the cold at a bus stop and have the bus go by because it’s full? Not good customer service. And it’s not their fault if they don’t have the money to do that, because we’re the ones that provide that money.”