A transit funding plan that prevents drastic service cuts and fare hikes at Metro Transit has suburban bus services on edge as they brace for cuts that might be coming their way.
"Everybody is kind of trying to figure out what exactly does it mean and what exactly is it that we have to do," said Robin Selvig, customer service manager at Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), the largest of six suburban transit agencies serving the south and west metro. "There will likely be some trimming. What the impact will be, we just don't know yet."
When the dust settles, it's likely that suburban providers will have to make do with millions less than they've been getting annually.
They won't be able to cover the gap by raising prices; fares cannot increase for suburban transit providers without a similar hike at Metro Transit, which runs transit services in the central cities and in suburbs that don't have their own services. But what cuts may be necessary, of bus routes or administration, is still unclear.
The uncertainty arose when the final transportation bill -- quickly approved with many others to end the shutdown -- pointed to suburban transit cuts as part of a solution to cover a $52 million drop in funding for Metro Transit over the next two years.
The bill also designates $15 million in special sales tax money collected by five counties to pay for transit expansion to instead be put toward operating expenses.
The Met Council promptly said predicted fare increases would be scrapped and instead of drastic service cuts, it would make regular ridership-based adjustments this fall.
For the anxious suburban providers, the cuts will likely lead to a dip into budget reserves. The reserves have long been a point of contention; the Met Council and other critics say the suburban services have too much cash on hand while other parts of the regional system are scraping for money.
In a letter to MVTA Chairman and Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning, Metropolitan Council Regional Administrator Patrick Born noted that the reductions are temporary and stressed that funding cuts will be made as equitably as possible.
"While we need some time to complete this analysis before speaking to the details of each provider's allocation, our priorities will be to continue existing services across the region and to prevent disproportionate service reductions to any regional transit provider," Born wrote.
Still, the bill left at least one suburban transit supporter, Shakopee Rep. Mike Beard, feeling "snookered."
"I have two of most energetic and efficient opt outs, in Prior Lake and Shakopee," said Beard, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "They do a marvelous job with their commuter routes and local circulators. But looking at the bigger picture, the evidence I was given by Met Council was that they were in dire straits. I had to go to my [suburban transit] friends and ask them to give up a $4 million increase and instead take a $3 million haircut over two years."
"I feel I like I screwed my friends and now the Met Council is gloating. They pulled one over on us. But it's the law now. We passed the bill. There it is. The Met Council is fat and happy ... and the [suburbanites] are looking at me and saying, 'What did you do to us?'"
Selvig, of MVTA, said many of the concerns stem from the closed-door negotiations during the special session.
"There was concern about the process and the opportunity to provide input," she said. "I do not believe our legal counsel through the [Suburban Transit Association] had any input in the final bill."
Now they're scrambling to figure out the consequences.
Jane Kansier, the Prior Lake assistant city manager responsible for transit, said, "I've seen a lot of different numbers, but they change continuously. I'm not comfortable saying what's going to happen yet."
The suburban transit providers will meet with Met Council staff later this month in hopes of getting answers.
"We're now looking at the bottom line," said Branning of MVTA. "We're going to be OK. I want to say that in philosophy. I don't have anything I can say in writing yet."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056