Opposition to light-rail transit was standard fare for Minnesota Republican candidates in the 2014 campaign. But among metro-area candidates, that position was often followed in the next breath by support for better bus service. In fact, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson quipped — we hoped not fully in jest — that he considered light rail a DFL plot to get Republicans to favor more spending on buses.
That’s why we were disappointed to learn from Metro Transit analysts the implications of the House GOP transportation proposal released March 23. As expected, it would make further expansion of light rail nearly impossible. It would deprive the Counties Transit Improvement Board of about $28 million per year in state funds now used for light-rail operations. The board, which is funded by a 0.25 percent five-county sales tax, would be obliged to pick up those operational costs, leaving it short of funds needed to finance new rail lines.
But contrary to last fall’s professions of GOP support for buses, the House plan would also lead to a reduction in Metro Transit bus service of at least 15 percent by 2018, said Arlene McCarthy, director of metropolitan transportation services for the Metropolitan Council. It does so by cutting state general funds by the amount of each year’s projected inflationary growth in transit’s share of motor vehicle sales taxes, until by 2018 the general fund stream of about $47 million would run dry.
In GOP legislative parlance, that’s “holding transit harmless.” But in Metro Transit’s world of multiyear planning, federal requirements and growing demand — particularly for Metro Mobility, a service for the handicapped that cannot be cut under federal rules — the GOP plan would immediately start a multimonth process of bus service reductions. The first service cuts would likely be made early next year, McCarthy said.
A stable bus system requires revenues that grow apace with operating costs. Deny the system motor vehicle sales tax increases, and the only growing source of funds would be rider fares. But Metro Transit riders already pay a higher percentage of costs than those in comparable metro areas. Raise fares, Metro Transit analyst Amy Vennewitz says, and chances are good that a consequent ridership decrease would erase any gain.
Should the GOP transportation plan become law, a round of public hearings would shortly ensue to discuss where and when to eliminate bus service. That process would unfold over several years that would also see the state’s transit-dependent senior population swell and transit-oriented millennials move into their productive years. A study last year by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America of millennial residents in 10 major U.S. cities found 66 percent saying access to transit is one of their top three criteria in deciding where to live; more than half said they would consider moving to another city on the strength of better transit options alone.
A disinvestment in transit now would be stunningly ill-timed. House Republicans should reconsider — and the DFLers in the Senate and governor’s office with whom the House GOP will negotiate a final transportation bill should insist that they do.