House votes to reduce spending for Twin Cities transit

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2011 - 12:05 AM

House voted to reduce spending on light-rail, commuter rail and outstate bus service.

The Minnesota House voted Monday night to trim the state budget deficit by reducing spending on Twin Cities transit, a strategy that could trigger fare hikes and service cuts.

The Republican-sponsored bill would decrease general fund money for Twin Cities bus, light-rail and commuter rail by nearly $130 million over the next two years, and reduce spending on outstate bus services by $7.6 million.

The transportation bill instructs the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Twin Cities transit spending, to tap a program that fosters low- and moderate-income housing if it needs more money to run transit.

"Our goal is a fiscally responsible approach to transportation," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee.

But Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, called the spectre of transit cuts "devastating," adding, "With gas prices going up, this is not the area where we ought to be headed."

The bill, which passed 70 to 60, includes a provision that would restrict revenues from a special metro transit sales tax to operate existing conventional bus routes. While the transit tax was created in 2008 to pay for improving transit, the provision would prohibit spending revenue from it on light-rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit.

The restriction would go into effect if passed in a referendum vote in the next election.

DFLers said the move to alter the terms of the transit tax, collected by five Twin Cities counties, sets a precedent for the state to tap local sales taxes elsewhere in Minnesota.

"This is not right," said Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington. "There was no effort on our side to go after rural, Republican local sales taxes."

Beard countered that restricting the transit spending to existing bus operations is justified at a time of state budget deficits.

The Met Council has said that fares could rise by 25 cents and regular route bus service could be cut by nearly 45 percent if the bill becomes law. Using fare increases alone to offset the reduction would mean $4 hikes.

But Beard called such estimates exaggerated and said the bill won't seriously damage public transportation. "It will keep the buses running, it will keep transit operating in rural Minnesota," he said.

The bill is at odds with the Dayton administration's views, setting up a likely veto if it passes the full Legislature. The Senate is considering a companion bill that provides smaller cuts in transit spending and requires cutting service before increasing fares.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said the bill would cut 101,000 service hours for outstate transit used by the elderly and disabled.

The reductions in general fund transit spending were detailed in an analysis of the bill by House researchers, who also said the bill would increase spending on state road construction by $66 million over two years. Republicans put the increase at nearly twice that amount.

They said a likely increase in revenues from gas and motor vehicle sales taxes will provide the added money for highway construction and also result in a slight overall increase in spending on outstate transit rather than a decrease.

They predicted that the decrease in Twin Cities transit funding would be closer to $40 million -- not the $130 million projected -- when rising revenue from motor vehicle taxes is included in the calculation.

But DFLers, citing the sluggish economy, said Republicans were relying on unrealistic assumptions of rising motor sales tax revenues for their predictions.

Late in the evening, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed amending the bill to cut money for suburban transit operations outside the Met Council that "are sitting on incredible reserves" to help fund Met Council transit. A Legislative Auditor's report showed four suburban bus companies holding reserves 100 percent or greater than their operating expenses. The amendment failed.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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