A little-known but critical board that plays a big role in funding mass transit in the metro area took the initial steps on Wednesday to dissolve itself.
In doing so, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) will likely ensure that major transit projects now on the drawing board are built. They include the $1.9 billion Southwest light rail line linking downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, and the $1.5 billion Bottineau Blue Line connecting Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. Both are expecting to begin service in 2021.
But a key roadblock for these projects involves the reluctance of Republican lawmakers at the Capitol to kick in a portion — usually a 10 percent share. If half the funding is not secured from local sources, a 50-percent matching grant from the Federal Transit Administration is endangered for the LRT projects.
Created in 2008, CTIB consists of elected officials and the chair of the Metropolitan Council. It generates cash through a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 fee on new car sales in five metro counties. In its short history, CTIB has paid nearly $1 billion toward local transit projects, including the Green Line LRT, linking the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Now, CTIB is on the hook to pay about a third of the cost to build transit projects like the Southwest and Bottineau lines.
While state law permits outstate counties in Minnesota to impose a half-cent sales tax for transportation purposes, metro counties are now capped at a quarter-cent tax.
Should members of CTIB dissolve the board, Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties can decide whether they want to increase their sales tax for transit to a half cent. Any sales tax increase would have to be approved by each county board.
While it took action to dissolve, CTIB members on Wednesday also authorized capital grant agreements with the Met Council totaling $254 million to help pay for Southwest, Bottineau and the Orange Line bus-rapid transit (BRT) line between Minneapolis and Burnsville. Additional agreements totaling $360,000 were approved to build the Gateway Gold Line BRT between St. Paul and Woodbury, and the Red Rock Corridor, a transitway between St. Paul and Hastings.
“We’re continuing the main operations of CTIB until we know how it will go,” said CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin, who is also a Hennepin County commissioner. “We’re basically walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
Last year, Dakota County voted to leave the board, arguing that it had paid in more than the benefits it got in return.
On Wednesday, there appeared to be some disagreement about how CTIB funds would be allocated should the board vote to dissolve.
That debate will likely continue in February when the board is expected to take a final vote.