In two recent editorials this paper lamented the 2015 Legislature’s failure to meet Minnesota’s transportation challenges and celebrated the latest not-dead-yet Southwest light-rail plan, wrapped in shiny new duct tape (“Minnesota sputters in roads, transit race,” July 6; “Civic sacrifice keeps Southwest on track,” July 8).
Those editorials are unrealistic. Let’s survey what the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton could agree to next year — and what is out of reach.
Fortunately our state transportation commissioner — self-described “old bus guy” Charlie Zelle — is respected and trusted by all.
Zelle told the House Transportation Committee in January that without reliable funding he could not responsibly choose more expensive but also more cost-effective options. When a budget is too tight, only short-term band-aid solutions are possible. DFL Rep. Ron Erhardt — a former Republican Transportation Committee Chair — took Zelle’s cue, proposing a constitutional amendment to permanently dedicate new funding. Expanded bonding authority could be included in that amendment.
Zelle’s prudence, reliable management and realistic numbers are the foundation for the real lead story from this year’s session: Dayton and House Republicans agree about the billions needed for a decade of adequate and effective spending on roads and bridges.
All things considered, this represents real progress — it’s not a “giant step backward.” Next year our Legislature and governor can, should and might agree to fund roads and bridges for one year, followed by a November constitutional vote to provide the decade of reliable funding Zelle insists on.
As a registered lobbyist for “We the People,” I promoted the Legislature’s decision to cancel an earlier $30 million Southwest LRT appropriation — repurposing those dollars for Metro Transit operations. That plan — the best available option as the session wound down — ensured that Metro Transit could avoid service or job cuts.
At the special session House Speaker Kurt Daubt confirmed to me that with only $15 million of state money now appropriated ($150 million less than planned), there will be no more state Southwest LRT money in 2016.
This brings me to the bad news. Based on my lobbying work with dozens of legislators, it’s clear that Minnesota’s transit challenge simply cannot be solved next year.
The current transit sales tax system — now heavily favoring Hennepin County — is losing support from other counties. The Chamber of Commerce supported the new quarter-percent transit sales tax in 2008; today they oppose any increase. And that was before the most recent Southwest LRT planning disasters.
This paper’s editorials implicitly acknowledged these transit obstacles — noting that when the DFL controlled both Houses and the governor’s office, no transit sales tax increase was approved.
If light rail is to go forward at all, a new framework is needed, possibly including public-private partnership elements and light-rail tax districts.
Unfortunately, the Met Council is choosing to ignore our elected governor and Legislature. Their Southwest LRT finance plan now includes “Certificates of Participation” — backed by anticipated tax revenue — to be sold if (make that when) the Legislature doesn’t provide more money next year.
Fortunately, we have alternatives.
One Southwest LRT option could start in Hopkins (supplemented beyond by buses), follow the Greenway (below grade) — surfacing at a giant Interstate 35W Transit Hub linking with I-35W MNPass bus service and the Lake Street and Nicollet lines — and then (elevated) follow the freeway corridor to Franklin, a Convention Station, and finally to Royalston and Target Field Stations.
Light rail can and should make all Minneapolis stadiums and arenas — and the nearby U of M — extensions of our convention facility. Convention visitors quickly could go to the heart of our amazing park system, to the airport and to the Mall of America. Special Blue Line trains could continue along the same track to the Convention Station when major conventions are here.
Let’s send Southwest LRT back to the drawing board, and take an honest look at all our options — including bus-based alternatives. Let’s not let a light-rail bureaucratic steamroller crush Minnesota’s opportunity to fully fund our needed road and bridge work for the next decade.
Bob "Again" Carney Jr. is a transit advocate in Minneapolis.