The transportation budget package released early Wednesday at the Legislature maintains the current level of money for transit service provided by the Metropolitan Council in the metro area.
The Met Council will receive a one-time infusion of $70 million in taxpayer money, which is part of its overall two-year budget of $250 million, under a plan negotiated by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders.
The additional money will help the council trim its projected two-year deficit of $67.5 million. The red ink is largely due to burgeoning costs for Metro Mobility, the federally mandated bus service for people with disabilities. Costs for Metro Mobility have been climbing due to increased demand from aging baby boomers, inflation and declining tax revenue.
The one-time infusion of money will not offset rising costs, so the regional planning body is still considering a fare hike to help stem ongoing losses.
The $6 billion transportation package at the Capitol, which includes an additional $300 million for roads and bridges across the state, was approved by the House 74-54 Wednesday afternoon and still awaits action by the Senate.
Met Council officials will not comment until Dayton signs the bill — the timing of which is unclear in a highly fluid special legislative session.
The battle over the Met Council shortfall remained a persistent sticking point during the session.
Without money to offset the deficit, council officials claimed that local bus and light-rail service would be cut by up to 40 percent. This sparked protests by transit advocates at the Capitol and elsewhere in recent weeks.
As the budget drama plays out in St. Paul, public hearings and meetings regarding a fare hike for bus, LRT, Northstar commuter rail and Metro Mobility are planned through mid-June. If the council approves an increase, it would be the first since 2008.
The proposed increase for bus and LRT would be either 25 cents or 50 cents, while Metro Mobility could see a hike of 50 or 75 cents. The council estimates that, on average, a fare increase could raise an extra $15 million over two years.
The agreement calls for the state to continue to pay for half the annual operating costs for the Blue and Green LRT lines, estimated at $30 million a year. But that won't be the case for the proposed Southwest line, according to language in the bill.
The proposed bonding measure for state-funded construction projects calls for spending $12.1 million for the Orange Line, a bus-rapid transit project linking downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville. If approved, the $150 million project will get the local funding necessary for federal matching funds.
A $25 million overhaul of the Mall of America transit station, the nexus for the Blue Line light rail and Red Line bus-rapid transit, received $8.75 million in the bonding measure.
Another provision in the transportation package limits the liability of railroad companies operating within a light-rail corridor to $3 million after a catastrophic incident, according to Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. This provision is primarily aimed at Glencoe-based freight carrier Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co., which will share the Kenilworth corridor with Southwest light rail.
Republican lawmakers pointed out that the bill contributes more to roads and bridges statewide — without an increase in taxes, including the gas tax.
"This is the largest, most robust transportation bill in the history of the state," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who chaired the House Transportation Finance Committee.
But Jessica Treat, chair of Transportation Forward and executive director of Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips, said in a statement that the bill "falls far short of meeting the state's immediate or long-term transit needs.
"Without a greater increase in transit funding, this bill will put the burden of fare increases on the very people who can least afford them," she said, noting demand for transit is growing. "That cuts and fare increases have even been part of the conversation during a budget surplus year is outrageous. That state leaders would settle for a bill that effectively starves the metro area transit system over time is unconscionable."