Last week Minnesotans learned that Metro Transit is once again projecting a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall. Transit officials rounded up the usual suspects to help balance the books: They proposed a modest fare increase for bus, light rail and Northstar Commuter rail riders.
These fare increases are proposed by transit officials who make difficult decisions every day to preserve our existing system while continuing to make transit an affordable option to millions of commuters in our region. Buses continue to be a very important public service in our seven-county metro area — many citizens depend upon an affordable, reliable and flexible transit system.
The constraints on the existing operating budget don’t allow any expansion of bus service into high-demand areas throughout developing areas of the region. Instead, we have a system that annually digs itself into a huge fiscal hole and then scrambles to gather together enough resources (meaning tax dollars) to preserve existing transit. It’s not sustainable; we need to face facts: our system is seriously off track.
As the former chair of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Committee, I believe it’s time for dramatic changes to our transit system to preserve a well-run and fairly efficient bus network that many commuters rely upon each day.
One of the first rules of thumb of running any enterprise is that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton included a line item in his supplemental budget request to the Legislature that would provide $4 million for a six-month demonstration project and engineering study to expand Northstar Commuter Rail service to St. Cloud. Northstar, operating since November of 2009 on an abbreviated line from Minneapolis to Big Lake, has forced taxpayers to subsidize a rail line that clearly has little demand. It’s one of the primary reasons our transit system is off the rails.
We learned earlier this year from transit officials that during 2016, only 2,369 daily riders boarded the Northstar trains — fewer than half the number that transit officials predicted would ride the system each day by 2030. This dramatic lack of riders forces taxpayers to subsidize nearly 84 percent of the cost of every person who boards the train — to the tune of $18.41 per person per day.
It’s time to stop making excuses for this costly failure. Instead of pouring good money after bad by expanding Northstar, Metro Transit should immediately discontinue weekend service on that line. Then transit officials, in conjunction and with guidance from the Legislature and the administration, need to begin the process of negotiating with federal transportation officials in Washington to determine how we can curtail service on this rail line completely. This line, in particular, continues to hemorrhage red ink that limits transit growth. It’s time to shut it down.
Before the Legislature approves any additional stopgap funding for transit, Metro Transit officials should agree to present to legislators, before the start of the next legislative session, various long-range transportation funding options, not just raising taxes or bus fares. A good example of the options we should consider would be switching to mileage-based fares for buses. Distance-based fares are nothing new to other large transit systems and they should be considered here to make our system more progressive and taxpayer-friendly.
In addition, we should put every option on the table to collect money currently left “on the table” in our existing system. This would include collecting parking revenue at the park-and-ride facilities from commuters who live outside the transit taxing district of the region. Every week, hundreds of thousands of residents who live outside our transit taxing region use our parking lots free of charge. If they wish to continue using our transit, they should have some skin in the game, just like those of us who pay the transit tax in the seven-county metro area.
These options are just a start, but we need an audacious plan going forward if we are going to operate a system that doesn’t perennially run an operating deficit and allows the expansion of our much-needed bus system.
While the Dayton administration was doubling down on Northstar rail, the Trump administration put forward a bold plan to curtail our “wants vs. needs” rail system that has allowed regional rail authorities to burden regional taxpayers with costly and unnecessary train systems. Trump’s proposal is to stop funding any new light-rail projects that aren’t already fully funded by the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts Program.
Stopping the Southwest light-rail line is good news for our already beleaguered regional transit system and sends a powerful message from Washington to our transportation planners to stop spending money we don’t have on projects we don’t need. Instead, it’s time to focus on what works, what commuters need and what we can afford.
Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.