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State transportation plans draw interest in Washington County

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • January 4, 2013 - 6:00 PM

It's not every day that the Minnesota Legislature, which convenes on Tuesday, considers a 200 percent tax increase.

But a proposed change of a fraction of a cent in a metrowide sales tax collected for transportation funding could kick up the pace of major projects, changing how people get around in Washington County and across the Twin Cities -- although approval of the change is definitely not a given.

A year ago, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed a task force to address the state's chronic shortfall in funding for roads, bridges, railroads, ports, airports and public transportation, and to find a reliable way to pay for improvements and upkeep. The 19-member panel of political, state agency and business leaders issued its final reports Dec. 28, including a package of recommendations for the Legislature to consider, most notably an increase in the gasoline tax.

The panel also recommended increasing the quarter-cent sales tax -- 25 cents on a $100 purchase -- collected for the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) to three-quarters of a cent, which would raise an estimated $200 million annually.

Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik, one of the county's CTIB's representatives, doubts the County Board would support such a move.

"CTIB's goal is to accelerate transportation projects in the Twin Cities," said Weik, who also is chairwoman of the Gateway Corridor Commission, which is overseeing one of those projects. "And right now, they're trying to accelerate multiple transitways at the same time."

But the whole issue of how the state funds those projects has been complex and, at times, frustrating, as reflected in the County Board's own legislative agenda for 2013, Weik said. The County Board supports consolidating transit oversight and turning over that responsibility to the state -- including funding sources and the CTIB sales tax.

It's too early to judge whether such a change would mean drawing funds from sales, income or property taxes, Weik said.

CTIB was created in 2008 and is composed of representatives from Washington, Ramsey, Dakota, Hennepin and Anoka counties. The sales tax it collects is funding 10 light-rail, bus-rapid transit (BRT) and commuter rail projects in the Twin Cities area, with more on the drawing board.

Three of those projects are in Washington County, and their development has been picking up steam: the Rush Line Corridor, Gateway Corridor and Red Rock Corridor.

The Rush Line Corridor will eventually connect Hinckley to the Twin Cities along Hwy. 61 and Interstate 35, by a BRT lane or possibly light rail. Right now, a pilot program providing express commuter buses from Forest Lake to St. Paul has proven such a success that it recently became permanent.

The Gateway Corridor runs along I-94 between the St. Croix River and downtown St. Paul. The panel overseeing the corridor's development has settled on a BRT route -- or possibly light rail, if funding allows -- that would include stops at key points along the way, including 3M and Sun Ray Shopping Center. Environmental assessment and preliminary engineering work are scheduled to start this year. CTIB funds would pay 30 percent of the BRT's $400 million estimated cost, although federal grants could change that expected contribution.

The Red Rock Corridor, which runs from Hastings to St. Paul, also will see its first tangible sign of progress this summer, when the first of four transit stations along the route is built in Newport (the others are in Hastings, Cottage Grove and at Lower Afton Road along Hwy. 61). The station, which will initially serve a park-and-ride facility for bus commuters, is to be the centerpiece for a 40-acre retail and residential development in what is now a blighted area of the city near the junction of Hwy. 61 and I-494. CTIB funds will pay for $2.8 million of the project's cost.

In making the case for raising the CTIB sales tax, the panel notes that, of 13 similar-sized metro areas, the Twin Cities is last in the portion of sales tax devoted to transit improvements.

Redoubling the state's investment in transit expansion, "will bring positive economic benefits to all Minnesotans," the report says, and bring a return of between $6 billion and $10 billion by 2030.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

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