Every month, a group of elected representatives called the Counties Transit Improvement Board has met to contemplate — and fund — mass transit in the metro area. Up until recently, it operated with little fuss.
Known as CTIB, the board has contributed more than $750 million to help pay for transit projects such as the Green Line LRT, which links the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two more light-rail lines connecting Minneapolis to the suburbs are in the pipeline, as well as several bus rapid transit projects.
But the eight-year-old board, funded largely by a transit sales tax levied in Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, is fractured by possible defections and criticism that call into question the metro area’s blueprint for transit — and how it should be funded.
With little notice last month, Dakota County voted to pull out of the group, leaving some CTIB members feeling stung and befuddled. And there’s talk among some state lawmakers that the board should be dissolved and its cash reserves used to shore up the controversial Southwest light-rail project.
CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin of Hennepin County, who has championed the board since its inception, attributes both to “a bigger effort to try to shut down the regional transit system” by anti-transit Republicans. While it’s no secret that many GOP lawmakers loathe light rail, Dakota County officials say they’re leaving CTIB because they put more money into the group than they get out of it.
And others may follow. “In my opinion, CTIB has run its course, it should be around to maintain the lines, but not build any more,” said Scott Schulte, a CTIB member and an Anoka County commissioner. “It seems like [CTIB’s] mission is to build as many [lines] as they can. I have grave concerns about that.”
But McLaughlin says, “I think it’s worked pretty darn well,” adding that CTIB has helped to attract $1.5 billion in federal transit money to the region.
The board’s genesis
CTIB was created in 2008 — part of a comprehensive transportation bill that was passed (over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto) after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. The agreement permitted seven metro counties to levy a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 tax on new car sales to help build and operate a local transit system. Carver and Scott counties opted out.
Unlike the Metropolitan Council, which consists of gubernatorial appointees, a focal point for critics, CTIB is composed of elected officials from the counties it represents. (Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck does have a seat.)
CTIB’s monthly meetings aren’t webcast, and there’s no audio recording for the general public. The meetings are held at a Ramsey County building on Plato Boulevard on St. Paul’s West Side — not a terribly transit-friendly location.
CTIB has proved to be a key funder and operator of local transit, providing more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to 10 transit corridors throughout the metro since 2009. It also pays half of the annual cost of operating the Green and Blue light-rail lines, the Red Line BRT in Dakota County and the Northstar commuter rail in the northern suburbs.
Attracting federal dollars
Last year, CTIB collected about $115 million in transit and new car taxes. This kind of local funding is a key cog in the transit math deployed to pay for big light-rail and rapid bus projects. The Federal Transit Administration will kick in about half of the cost of a project — but only after local entities cough up the other half.
CTIB is on the hook to pay 30 percent of the $1.8 billion Southwest light-rail line, but the project has stalled because state lawmakers failed to come up with their 10 percent share (now at $135 million) in the past two legislative sessions.
There’s hope that some resolution to Southwest’s funding shortfall will come at a special legislative session next month. Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders suggested earlier this month that CTIB may play a role, but offered no details.
Then there are those who say CTIB should disband and parse out its $230 million in reserve funds to help pay for Southwest and other projects.
McLaughlin says that’s a terrible idea, because CTIB has some pressing financial obligations, including repayment over the next 15 years of about $124 million in principal and interest on bonds that were issued to help pay for the Green Line.
There’s also the annual cost of operating existing transit lines. “Who will pay for that?” he asked.
Meanwhile, CTIB must contend with the loss of Dakota County’s revenue, now about $15.5 million a year, when it leaves the board in 2019. This could imperil the proposed Orange Line bus-rapid-transit along the busy Interstate 35W corridor, and East Side projects such as the Gateway BRT, linking downtown St. Paul to Woodbury.
“What does this mean to the east-west metro balance of investments?” said CTIB member Rafael Ortega, a Ramsey County commissioner. “We want to make sure there’s a balanced approach in the region.”
Lisa Weik, a CTIB board member from Washington County, said Dakota County’s withdrawal was “disappointing. Obviously you look out for your own counties, but there’s a bigger picture here.”
But Schulte, of Anoka County, says, “The question is, ‘Who do these lines really benefit and who should be paying for them?’ Should Dakota and Anoka citizens, who never ride transit, fund transit options that mostly serve Hennepin and Ramsey counties?”