Metro Transit and its parent body, the Metropolitan Council, emerged from the 2017 Legislature's budget-setting session with a sense that they had dodged disaster. Threats to shrink bus service by as much as 40 percent, block expansion of light-rail transit and shift control of the Met Council from the state to local governments all were turned back — for now.
Instead, ironically, a Republican-controlled Legislature put the light-rail expansion that Republicans detest onto firmer financial ground. In divorcing state government from light rail, the Legislature allowed metro counties the authority they previously lacked to pay for new rail lines on their own. This week, the Hennepin and Ramsey county boards voted to do just that. They raised a transportation-dedicated sales tax by a net 0.25 percent beginning Oct. 1, generating more than $100 million a year beginning in 2018. That's enough to meet the combined state-plus-local funding requirements for construction of the proposed Southwest and Bottineau lines, and then some. Those projects' futures are still uncertain, with both federal funding and the outcome of a federal lawsuit against the Southwest line still in doubt. But all local funding barriers appear to have been lifted.
The new sales tax in the core metro counties was made possible with the dissolution of the nine-year-old venture in regionalism called the Counties Transit Improvement Board. The five-county board's disappearance is a pragmatic concession to a transit debate that has become ferociously politicized. It's also worrisome evidence that today's Minnesotans are not adept at doing what previous generations did so well — pool their resources in pursuit of a shared vision of a better future.
There's more such evidence in the Legislature's treatment of transit. A $70 million, two-year funding increase for bus operations — authorized at DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's insistence — was enough to stave off a deep deficit in bus operations in the next two years. But that boost came as one-time money, leaving a projected $110 million hole in Metro Transit's operating budget come 2019. No remedy was offered for the fiscal pressure caused by Metro Mobility, a federally mandated service for the disabled that is seeing rapidly rising costs.
Keeping Metro Transit in the black in the next two years is still likely to require a fare increase, the first since 2008. The Met Council has begun hearings on a proposed boost of up to 50 cents per ride. We're rooting for a slow phase-in of any increase, to avoid an abrupt drop in ridership that could worsen the region's growing labor shortage.
Meanwhile, there's no lessening of partisan resistance to Metro Transit. Days after the Legislature adjourned, the GOP-leaning Center of the American Experiment issued a report accusing the Met Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation of choosing not to remedy gridlock on metro freeways by prioritizing transit and bicycle use rather than road improvements.
There are several holes in that argument. More than $2.1 billion is scheduled to be spent on Twin Cities freeway projects between 2018 and 2021. Peer-reviewed academic research (which the American Experiment report is not) has found that expanding freeways does not reduce congestion, but transit does. Federal funds available for transit cannot be used for highway improvements, just as the state gas tax — which at 28.6 cents per gallon now lags Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota — cannot be used for transit. The high price — financially and otherwise — of adding lanes to freeways makes that an inefficient way to do what public investment in transportation is intended to do: boost the economy for everyone, not just those who drive.
Despite those weaknesses, American Experiment is touting its report with a publicity blitz that includes radio ads, billboards, bumper stickers and a website. Metro Transit is on notice: The partisan opposition it encountered at the Legislature this year will be back. Those who understand transit's importance to Minnesota's prosperity need to be back, too, in force.