After months of political disagreement, the fate of Minnesota’s ailing roads and bridges finally made it to the floor of the Minnesota House Tuesday, as Republicans united behind a $7 billion plan to fix the state’s ailing transportation infrastructure without raising any taxes.
The bill passed 73-59 after a contentious debate that stretched to nearly eight hours. Only one DFLer, Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, crossed party lines to support it.
The House GOP measure has major differences with an $11 billion proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton, and a similar plan from the DFL-controlled Senate. Those proposals boost funding considerably higher than Republicans with a 16-cent per gallon wholesale gas tax increase — on top of the 28.5 cents per gallon Minnesotans already pay for gas.
“The Democrat plan is, apparently, raise the gas tax,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. “Our plan would put $7 billion into roads and bridges over 10 years.”
The Republican plan caps spending on metro-area transit projects, and allocates $5 million to upgrade potentially dangerous oil-train railroad crossings that dot the state, even though a state audit concluded more than $300 million would be needed to do the job.
The bill is a “common-sense proposal” that stays true to public opinion indicating that Minnesotans don’t want to pay more at the pump, said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, the bill’s sponsor.
Under the House proposal, the state would repurpose $3 billion from existing sales taxes on auto parts and leased and rental cars into a fund that would pay for improvements for roads and bridges, small-city and suburban roads, bus service in outstate Minnesota and metro-area capital improvements.
All told, the House plan would repair or replace 330 bridges and 15,500 miles of roadway throughout the state.
Specifically, $1.4 billion would be spent on county roads, $583 million on municipal roads, and $282 million on roads in towns with fewer than 5,000 residents.
DFL leaders in the House Tuesday criticized the plan as a shortsighted “house of cards.” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and a parade of DFLers complained that it siphons off general fund dollars that would otherwise be used for education and health care.
Earlier in the day, Dayton said he was glad Democrats and Republicans alike recognized a need for a large transportation spending infusion. “At least we have a starting point there,” Dayton said.
Railroads asked to chip in
One of the first amendments proposed in the House debate was introduced by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, calling for railroad companies to pay up to $32 million to defray the cost of upgrading rail crossings throughout the state.
The measure comes after several deadly accidents nationwide involving trains hauling oil from North Dakota. (An amendment by Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, that would have required North Dakota to pay for the project was withdrawn.)
The $5 million appropriated in the House bill “doesn’t even pay for one crossing,” Hornstein said.
Kelly, noting the amount is 2.5 times the $2 million appropriated last year, said Hornstein’s concerns are “more of a political statement.”
The amendment failed on a vote of 59-73, with Republicans uniting against it. The GOP also rejected an amendment that would have granted driver’s licenses to immigrants without legal documentation, which has bipartisan support at the Capitol but is opposed by House GOP leadership.
Transit takes big hit
The House bill hits Twin Cities mass transit hard, including the planned $1 billion Bottineau light-rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis with Brooklyn Park, as well as suburban bus-rapid transit. The controversial Southwest light-rail line, which will link Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, would not be affected by the plan.
In a letter to the House Transportation committee earlier in April, Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said the proposal would force Metro Transit to reduce regular bus service over the next two years by at least 17 percent — a figure that will increase to 25 percent or 20 million rides lost by 2021. Roughly 600 transit operator and maintenance jobs would be lost, he said.
He noted it would “cause a significant slowdown in transitway development,” including bus rapid transit (BRT) and arterial bus rapid transit.
Planned BRT projects include the Gateway Corridor, or Gold Line, which would link Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to Woodbury; the Orange Line between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville; and the C-Line arterial rapid transit, featuring quick bus service with limited stops, which would run along Penn Avenue and is slated to open in 2017.
The House bill would also shift the state’s share of operating costs for the Green and Blue light-rail lines, Northstar Commuter Rail and Red Line bus-rapid transit to the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which uses a local sales tax to help pay for transit projects. The cost of this shift is worth about $60 million over the next two years, according to the Met Council.
Hornstein questioned the cuts to metro-area transit. “Young people are making decisions where to live based on transit. Why would we do this?”
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee passed that chamber’s transportation bill. A floor debate on that measure is likely in the next few days, after which negotiators from the House GOP and Senate DFL will meet in conference committee to try to reach a final compromise.