The Minnesota House on Friday approved a $2.2 billion transportation plan that would boost state spending on roads and bridges and likely force cuts to public transit.
The 76-54 vote was largely a party line split, with all Republicans and a single DFLer, Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown, voting in favor of the bill and the rest of the DFL caucus voting against it. Lawmakers divided over two major components of the GOP bill: which types of transportation it would support, and if it should be paid for out of the state’s general fund, or with a new tax.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the bill’s author, said the state, projected to have a $1.65 billion surplus in the next two-year funding cycle, is able to support an ambitious investment in transportation systems. His plan calls for $6 billion in spending over the next decade, all funded without new taxes. DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, have pushed for a more permanent funding source, but Torkelson urged the House to push ahead.
“I don’t think the contractors [who build roads] or the people who drive on these roads care one iota about where the dollars come from,” he said. “They want the dollars to be there. Let’s get to our road projects and get them built.”
The vote followed similar action Thursday in the Senate, where the Republicans passed a smaller transportation bill that would spend $1.3 billion in the next two-year budget cycle and a total of $3.6 billion over the coming decade.
House and Senate negotiators now must collaborate on a final plan to send to Dayton. Unless it comes with some significant changes, it’s unlikely to get the governor’s backing.
Dayton has previously rejected the GOP’s plan to pay for big transportation projects with taxes on auto parts and repairs, rentals and leases, which currently feed the state’s general fund. He has repeatedly called for use of a permanent funding source, like an increase to the gas tax, to ensure the state doesn’t drain funds it may need for other priorities or operations.
The House GOP plan includes $300 million to fix traffic problems on key highways that the bill calls “corridors of commerce,” $35 million for improvements to at-grade road crossings, $25 million for road repairs in small cities, and funds to fix bridges across the state.
It would limit local communities’ ability to build new light-rail lines, requiring state approval for any new construction, and drop local transit service funding by $122 million over the next two years, according to officials with the Metropolitan Council. They said the bill would force them to raise rates on buses and trains and make significant cuts to transit across the metro area.
Several DFL lawmakers admonished Republicans for a proposal they said ignores the transportation needs of Minnesota’s largest cities. Some said rural lawmakers were putting their own interests ahead of people who depend on public transit to get to work and school.
“Around here, people use the train and the bus to do their basic daily activities,” said Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-North Mankato, who said he uses transit while working in or visiting the Twin Cities. “To assault that transit system … it’s really short sighted and wrong headed.”
If lawmakers are able to strike a deal on a transportation bill, it would be a first in recent years. The 2016 legislative session ended with Republicans and DFLers at an impasse over funding for the proposed new Southwest light rail line.