A little-known but powerful board that raises millions for metro-area transit projects is mulling a proposal to dissolve itself.
In so doing, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) may be able to raise as much, or perhaps more, money for mass transit in the Twin Cities while bypassing the Legislature, which has been reluctant to fund expensive projects.
"This would remove us from the contentious debate in the Legislature and it would allow us to move forward," said CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin, a longtime Hennepin County commissioner.
No decision about CTIB's fate was made at its meeting Thursday, but none of the board's members expressed opposition. The board is made up mostly of elected officials, although Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck also is a member.
Dissolution is just one option for CTIB, as is maintaining the status quo.
The board, formed in 2008, is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax for transit levied in Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, as well as a $20 tax on new car sales. It has invested $769 million for projects, such as the nearly $1 billion Green Line light-rail line that connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Dissolution of CTIB would permit each of the five member CTIB counties to increase the transit tax to a half-cent, although it's unlikely all will opt to do so. As of Jan. 1, 26 outstate Minnesota counties will have levied a half-cent sales tax for transportation purposes.
Squabbling and uncertainty
Earlier this year, Dakota County decided to leave the board by 2019, claiming it contributes more money than it gets in return. The move has created acrimony among some members of the board.
The squabbling and uncertainty come at a time when two major light-rail lines — Southwest and Bottineau — are deep into the development stage with service for both slated to begin in 2021. CTIB already is on the hook to provide 30 percent of the local match for both projects, with the state kicking in 10 percent.
It's critical for local transit funding to be shored up if the Twin Cities is to attract matching grants from the Federal Transit Administration.
But as the metro area builds out its public transportation network, with light-rail and bus-rapid transit lines worth billions in the works, the prospect of winning state dollars for these projects appears unlikely. That's especially true following the November election, when Republicans — many of whom oppose transit funding — won control of the Legislature.
Earlier this year, the Legislature opted not to provide $145 million for the Southwest line, forcing the Met Council to use an obscure financial tool called "certificates of participation" to raise $103.5 million. CTIB and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority each agreed to contribute an additional $20.5 million to save the $1.9 billion project.
Transit planners were facing a similar scenario with the $1.5 billion Bottineau light-rail project, as well as the Interstate 35W Orange Line (Minneapolis to Burnsville), the Gateway Gold Line (Union Depot to Woodbury) bus-rapid-transit lines, and others.
The overhaul of CTIB, should it occur, would come at a time when other cities have surged ahead of the Twin Cities in the number of transit projects in the works.
This year's election proved historic for public transportation in the U.S. Voters passed 34 of 49 local and statewide ballot measures for transit, raising nearly $200 billion, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Such public referendums have not been a funding option used in the Twin Cities.