Senate approves transit cuts

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2011 - 9:27 PM

Moving to cut Metro Transit costs, the Minnesota Senate on Monday passed a transportation spending bill that opponents warned will lead to service cuts or fare increases.

The measure, approved 38-25, reduces spending on Twin Cities bus and rail operations by $32 million over two years.

The reduction by the GOP-led Senate is less severe than cuts favored by Republicans in a bill that passed the Minnesota House. The two bills will be reconciled in conference committees.

Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has criticized both bills, which differ sharply from his recommendations.

DFLers won some concessions by restoring most of the funds for planning passenger rail that had been targeted for cuts. They also amended the bill to reduce funding for some suburban bus operations to avert $8 million in planned cuts to outstate transit.

The cuts to Twin Cities transit would affect funding from the Metropolitan Council, which oversees bus and rail transit. The transportation bill directs the agency to tap programs fostering low- and moderate-income housing and to buy right-of-way if it needs more money for mass transit.

"What we attempted to do is to give the Metropolitan Council ... the tools in the toolbox to best use their discretion in dealing with this reduction," said Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, sponsor of the bill. "We need to make these reductions."

The House version of the transportation bill also instructs the Met Council to rely on money from housing programs if needed to run transit.

The House called for $130 million in general fund cuts to the Met Council's transit program -- four times what the Senate seeks. The House also called for a $7.6 million reduction for outstate bus services.

The Senate bill had envisioned an $8 million cut in outstate transit spending. But DFLers gained enough Republican support to reduce funding by that amount to some suburban bus agencies so that the money could be used for outstate transit.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, pushed for that amendment, arguing that the suburban bus agencies had excessive reserves. She referenced a Legislative Auditor's report that showed four of six suburban bus operations had reserves equal to or greater than their operating expenses. She said the reserves "far exceed" recommended levels.

"It's extra money that can be used to assist the rural part of the state," Sheran said.

Seven Republicans joined DFLers in passing the amendment.

The Senate also amended its bill to restore $600,000 of $1 million in funding for the state's passenger rail office, which makes long-range plans for rail service. Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, told colleagues the funding was necessary for Minnesota to compete with dozens of other states for federal passenger rail funding.

"We're sort of at the back of the pack," Reinert said.

Nine Republicans joined DFLers in voting for the passenger rail funding.

Met Council chair Susan Haigh, in a letter to Gimse, said the bill would result in "service reductions, route eliminations and fare increases," adding, "These measures would hurt most those who depend on transit the most and have the least ability to pay."

The Senate bill lacks a provision in the House measure that would allow earmarking some special metro transit sales tax revenue to operate existing bus routes rather than light-rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit. The sales tax money currently is designated for new transit development.

The Senate on Monday rejected a proposal to end the transit sales tax after outstanding obligations are paid.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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