If you’re thinking about kicking the tires on a new light-rail line, be sure to wear steel-tipped boots. Maybe some body armor. Light rail can kick back pretty hard. The Bottineau Line budget recently kicked up about $500 million — it’s total is now $1.5 billion.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board’s response: Things will be a lot worse if we do nothing (“Doing nothing is the costliest transit plan,” Nov. 1). Fortunately, the editorial included a saving grace, noting “finding effective alternatives” as an option.

Unfortunately, light-rail sticker shock is a symptom of a much deeper problem: a built-in mandate favoring light-rail construction boondoggles.

This paper’s opinion-page discussion on transportation and transit hasn’t delved much into the mysterious “CTIB” — the Counties Transit Improvement Board. Most people have never heard of the CTIB. But to understand the transit challenges our Legislature faces, we need to deal with some CTIB basics.

The CTIB, established in 2008 with a quarter-cent transit sales tax, is intended to fund 30 percent (or more) of light rail and bus rapid transit capital budgets — with 50 percent (or less) coming from the federal government, 10 percent from the state and 10 percent from the counties in which a project is built. The CTIB also has a crucial legal mandate: to “maximize the availability and use of federal funds.”

Here’s how the boomerang logic of that mandate comes back at us: that $500 million Bottineau budget increase is actually a good thing in the sense that it advances the CTIB’s mandate to “maximize” federal funds.

The CTIB’s mandate to chase federal money is a real deal-killer for Republicans. The CTIB’s most recent (2014) capital budget plan calls for spending an enormous $4.8 billion (I adjusted all data for the Bottineau budget increase). Over 83 percent of this — almost $4 billion — is for rail projects, including Northstar upgrades and a new St. Paul/airport light-rail line. Of the $1.9 billion federal share, 82 percent is for rail projects. The Legislature’s share is over $500 million — including $150 million for Southwest light rail that House Speaker Kurt Daudt told me would not be coming next year. The CTIB’s $1.9 billion share would be borrowed — with its sales tax dollars pledged for decades.

Beyond the mountain of debt, current law requires the state to pay not only the 10 percent capital budget share, but a full 50 percent of operating deficits for the CTIB’s rail projects. This is becoming a much bigger issue at the Legislature — especially for rural legislators.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal would raise $280 million a year from a new half-cent metrowide transit sales tax. The DFL Senate proposes a three-quarters-cent tax.

Here’s the bottom line: Any transit sales tax increase will point the Legislature directly back into a murky swamp: The CTIB’s relationship to the Metropolitan Council and the CTIB’s legal mandate to chase federal dollars. Republican opposition to light rail is centered on the belief that it does little to relieve congestion and that it generally isn’t cost-effective.

Beyond these objections, it simply will not be possible for the Legislature to sort out the mess involving the CTIB, the federal money mandate, and the Met Council in the short (10-week) 2016 legislative session.

Fortunately, Dayton’s proposed $280 million a year sales tax increase offers us a benchmark for weighing the benefits from “effective alternatives.” Dayton’s $280 million number is more than the entire $236 million annual state and local operating subsidy for Metro Transit.

Options and opportunities include my plan for scheduling hundreds of existing commuter buses for reverse commutes — and also new hybrid options that may blend in Uber and Car2Go and integrate taxis with transit service.

How much could we raise the overall quality and level of transit service if we doubled what we are spending on the Metro Transit operating budget?

We need to do some honest work studying our opportunities for new and better kinds of transit service — not giant construction boondoggles. The key concept is transit service: people riding places in vehicles that use what we already have, our roads and bridges and our MnPass system.


Bob “Again” Carney Jr., of Minneapolis, is a transit activist.