After years of riding behind Republicans on transportation, DFLers now in the driver’s seat at the Legislature are pushing hefty increases in taxes for transit and highways.

There’s a proposal to raise the gasoline tax 9.5 cents a gallon for highways and another to quadruple the current metro sales tax dedicated for transit.

“It goes beyond the governor’s proposal,” transit advocate Barb Thoman said of the proposed hike in the sales tax.

Legislators favoring the sales tax increase were joined Wednesday at the Capitol by people wearing hard hats and carrying signs that read, “Transit for a Stronger Economy.”

The transit bill sponsored by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, would increase the portion of the sales tax dedicated to transit from a quarter-cent to 1 cent in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Washington and Dakota counties.

Her proposal also would impose a three-quarter-cent tax on sales in Carver and Scott counties for transit. Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The transit measures are more ambitious than one proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton, who would add a half-cent to the existing sales tax in the Twin Cities metro area.

Speed up progress

Proponents say a three-quarter-cent increase in the metro sales tax would raise an estimated $300 million annually and allow completion of projects in 15 years instead of 20, as the governor’s proposal would.

They say the funds would expand and upgrade bus service and help pay for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line, a future Bottineau light-rail line to the northern suburbs and bus-rapid transit on dedicated lanes on four more highways.

The sales tax hike would provide $50 million a year in the metro area for bike routes, sidewalks and projects for the disabled.

The transit proposals also direct that $32 million in motor vehicle sales taxes be used to create 250 bus routes in outstate Minnesota.

Another provision calls for borrowing $95 million to develop metro transit corridors and $8 million for outstate transit.

The proposed tax hikes for transportation join other House DFLers’ proposals for a temporary income tax surcharge on top earners and $2.4 billion in new revenues, mostly to increase spending on education and provide property tax relief.

State Republicans took aim at the transit tax.

“This regressive tax hike … goes to fund more Democrat pet projects, rather than our roads,” said state GOP chairman Pat Shortridge, referring to rail projects. “Gov. Dayton and DFL legislators are taxing Minnesotans at every possible turn.”

Gas tax proposal

Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, proposed a 9.5-cent increase in the gasoline tax. Five cents of the increase would become effective in October, with the rest phased in as surcharges over several years.

Erhardt was a Republican in 2008 when he joined DFLers to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of an 8.5-cent gasoline tax increase. He switched parties after losing his seat to another Republican.

“Roads and bridges are falling apart,” Erhardt said Wednesday in arguing for more funding.

He said the 9.5 cents over five years is proportionate to a 40-cent increase over 20 years recommended by the governor’s task force. Dayton has not embraced that recommendation.

Although Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, the lead Republican on the House Transportation Finance Committee, has said he’d consider a gas tax increase under some circumstances to fund highways, the state GOP Wednesday took a dim view of the Erhardt proposal.

“Our state needs to spend the money we have much more effectively before we discuss new tax hikes,” Shortridge said.