Minnesotans know the Legislature is trying to pass a long-term transportation funding bill. They know the effort is now several years in the making. And Minnesotans know that one of the big sticking points to finding consensus is funding the continued build-out of the Twin Cities transit system. But it doesn’t have to be.
The past several years have been spent debating whether and how to invest additional money into metro transit. Some have argued the state should contribute more to the effort. Others have suggested counties and local communities should shoulder the financial responsibility to expand the system.
As a statewide organization representing the interests of 2,300 businesses and more than 500,000 employees, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has long advocated for passage of a comprehensive, long-term, multimodal transportation bill. Our members across Minnesota understand the role of a vibrant transportation system to keep our state competitive. Our Twin Cities members know that transit options are needed to ease congestion, free up the movement of freight, help get employees and customers to their doors, and attract the workforce they need today and tomorrow.
The Minnesota Chamber endorses the principle that metro transit should be built out with metro funding. The good news is that this year, new solutions have been offered that fit that principle.
The five metro counties that currently make up the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) have contemplated dissolving the board to allow each metro county to have the same authority that every other Minnesota county already has — to levy up to a one-half cent local-option sales tax to fund transportation projects. Parity would provide these five metro counties the option to double the one-quarter cent sales tax they currently levy to support transit through CTIB.
Finding agreement among the five metro counties to dissolve CTIB has been difficult. In the meantime, the Minnesota Senate, with bipartisan support, stepped forward with another approach in its bill to increase investment in our state roads and bridges: Give individual counties in the metro area the ability to levy — by voter referendum — an additional one-fifth cent to the one-quarter cent they already collect for CTIB and use it for transportation.
Yet another option put forward this year in the House is to use the incremental growth in property values around transit projects to help fund ongoing operations. These big infrastructure investments drive development in the area that surrounds them. This development, in turn, raises property values and increases property tax receipts. Under the proposal, while local taxing jurisdictions would continue to receive the normal growth in those property taxes, any growth above and beyond the county average that’s attributable to development spurred by these projects would be used to help fund ongoing operations.
To be clear, all of these funding options for metro transit put local jurisdictions in the driver’s seat when it comes to building and operating transit projects in their communities. They align with the Minnesota Chamber’s long-held principle for funding the growth of metro transit. They reflect the very practical, current view that if the state isn’t willing to build these projects, it should not be expected to fund their operations.
As the Legislature takes its break this week, we remain hopeful that the House and Senate can make progress on a compromise transportation bill when they return. The House has proposed a robust road and bridge funding plan, but falls short on the real transit needs in the metro. Not only does the House plan prohibit local jurisdictions from using their own funds to build and operate transit lines, but it also likely leads to serious reductions in bus service.
The Senate proposal, while forging new solutions on transit funding, warrants additional funding to meet the state’s roads and bridges funding needs.
Yet, after years of gridlock, a viable compromise is emerging for resolving Minnesota’s roads, bridges and transit needs this session. These two bills include many — but not all — of the provisions necessary for our state’s next, long-term transportation financing package. Blending the ideas from the House and Senate transportation proposals is a good start, but there’s more work to do. We encourage the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton to fine-tune these ideas and agree to invest in our valuable infrastructure this session.
Doug Loon is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (www.mnchamber.com).