Transit service in Minnesota doesn’t just involve giant projects in the Twin Cities.
On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle announced nearly $24 million in transit grants to 23 providers throughout the state. About $15 million went to the state’s bigger metropolitan areas — Moorhead, Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth.
Most of the money will be used to buy and maintain buses, and help with operating costs for transit operators in Minnesota. “There’s really no one specific template in how transit is delivered,” or in how the grants were doled out, Zelle said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
The grants come from motor vehicle sales taxes on new, used and leased vehicles, general fund money and MnDOT trunk highway appropriations.
Smith noted that outstate residents took 12.2 million transit rides in 2015, more than one in 10 transit trips in Minnesota that year. Ridership on public transportation increased almost 13 percent between 2010 and 2014, and is expected to continue to grow as the state’s population increases and ages.
Smith said nearly two-thirds of the transit riders in outstate Minnesota take transit to work or to school.
The biggest award was a $4 million grant to the St. Cloud Metropolitan Transit Commission, which provides bus and paratransit services in the central Minnesota city.
Tom Cruikshank, the commission’s chief operations and planning officer, said he didn’t know details of the MnDOT award Thursday, but was gratified to hear the news.
“We’re growing,” Cruikshank said. The St. Cloud bus system serves 2 million passengers a year on 18 routes, he said.
Overall, about $81.5 million has been set aside in fiscal 2017 for greater Minnesota transit service, which generally enjoys bipartisan support.
MnDOT predicts that operating expenses for greater Minnesota transit will exceed revenue by 2021, and that the deficit will climb to $31 million by 2025.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he supports transit outstate, but noted about $27 million of unspent transit money set aside for greater Minnesota will be left on the fund’s balance sheet as a cushion at the end of fiscal 2017. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a lack of funds,” said Torkelson, who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee.