Stressed transit operating budgets need special attention.
Last week's passage of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Policy Plan provides a figurative and literal road map for the region's long-range road and transit priorities. The proposed projects have projected timelines, but those can be changed to accommodate any federal funds that may be made available as part of the economic stimulus package that is expected to work its way through Congress and be signed by President-elect Barack Obama.
The current version of the stimulus package includes investments in infrastructure intended to create new jobs as quickly as possible. A total of $30 billion is slated for highways; $31 billion to modernize federal and other public infrastructure for energy efficiency; $19 billion for clean water, flood control and environmental restoration, and $9 billion for transit.
The transit investment is a reflection of the need for a multimodal transportation system. The bill requires that these funds "be invested in ready-to-go projects" with the goal to "put shovels in the ground within 90 days of enactment." That might mean transit infrastructure, which often depends on a long permitting process. The problem is that transit operating budgets, which are plunging in Minnesota and elsewhere, will get short shrift.
The Met Council, legislative leaders and the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., are acutely aware of these budget challenges. Despite a ridership increase of 6.8 percent for the first 11 months of 2008, the council predicts a budget shortfall of $72 million through the next biennium "just to maintain existing transit service and fund committed service expansions."
The expansion was part of the premise, if not the promise, of the 2008 transportation funding bill passed by the Legislature, which authorized metro counties to impose a new quarter-cent sales tax for bus rapid transit and light and commuter rail. But except for a one-time appropriation of $31 million, the new revenues cannot be used to help operate regular route service.
New investment via the stimulus package could help patch this shortfall until the state addresses the root of the problem -- reliance on the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax for funding ongoing transit operations. That pool is shrinking, in part because the recession is keeping consumers from buying new cars.
In the short term, more focus on transit operating and infrastructure investment may not meet the stimulus bill's "shovel-ready" requirement.
But a letter drafted by state Sen. Scott Dibble and state Rep. Frank Hornstein, both DFLers, to Obama emphasizing that more aggressive investment in transit eventually might meet or surpass the jobs objective. They cite statistics that show transit investment creates 19 percent more jobs than an equal investment in highway expansion, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project.
On the federal level, any stimulus package should take these realities into account, as should the subsequent surface transportation bill, which is due for its six-year renewal this year. On a state level, the Legislature should revisit the transit funding formula.
After all, as Met Council Chair Peter Bell points out, "I'm not sure how much sense it makes hiring a construction worker at the same time you're laying off a bus driver."
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