For advocates of transportation funding, it marked a rare opportunity to secure permanent new sources of money for state highways, metro light-rail and bus rapid transit.
Sympathetic DFLers were in charge in the Minnesota House and Senate and in the governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades.
“We really thought this was the year,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.
It wasn’t. Bold plans to increase funding fell by the wayside as DFLers quarreled over raising taxes and transportation took a back seat to other causes in the legislative session.
Instead, Minnesota will continue to rely on funding that studies show falls short of providing a reliable cash flow to maintain the current highway system and fulfill plans for transit.
“This is a short-term fix, it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the chairman of the House transportation committee, who said he was “very disappointed.”
Transportation advocates had hoped to increase a metro sales tax for Twin Cities transit. They also favored raising the gasoline tax for state highways for the first time since 2008, when legislators passed a gradual increase over the veto of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
A task force appointed last year by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton recommended increasing it by 40 cents a gallon over two decades.
Dayton supported raising the metro sales tax for transit, but opposed attempts to raise the gas tax this year. House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, also opposed raising the gas tax at a time when Democrats were pushing tax increases for top earners and cigarette smokers.
But supporters of the sales tax for metro transit feared they couldn’t get outstate votes without raising funds for state highways. With little more than a week left, the Senate approved a transportation package that combined a half-cent increase in the metro sales tax for transit with a 5-cent gasoline tax hike for highways.
The governor agreed to a half-cent sales tax hike but not the gas tax, instead offering to borrow $300 million for highways.
Senate plan stalls
As the session approached the end, the House and Senate Sunday approved the $300 million in borrowing for highways but neither a gas or sales tax increase. They gave counties more financial responsibility for roads by authorizing them to raise vehicle charges from $5 to $20.
The legislation also provides $37 million in state funds to the Metropolitan Council, the agency that oversees transit, to keep planning for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project on track.
It also restores state money cut from an earlier Met Council budget and provides another $18 million for transit operations. Met Council chair Susan Haigh said the legislation puts transit operations in “a much stronger position” than in previous years, but a permanent funding solution is needed.
The current funding doesn’t have the same long-term impact as gas or sales tax increases, which could have raised $1 billion for highways and transit over the next four years and continued into the future.
The absence of a guaranteed revenue stream could slow the development of future projects like the Bottineau light-rail between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park and a network of bus rapid transit. Advocates are counting on the state to contribute another $81 million to Southwest.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, told fellow senators that passing the tax increases would “send a strong signal to the House and the governor that transportation is a priority.” But the House and the governor weren’t moved.
“The Legislature had a huge opportunity this session and let it slip away,” said Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities.
Transit advocates in the Legislature often point to support from business groups, such as the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the transit sales tax increase.
However, the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, which includes communities that would be served by the Southwest LRT, supports the project but hasn’t endorsed the tax increase. That rankled Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan.
“You want us to finish some of these lines,” he told Judy Johnson, director of government affairs for TwinWest, at one hearing. “Then you don’t want to pay for it.”
Johnson said TwinWest was leery of raising the metro sales tax at a time when the governor and Legislature were considering other tax increases.