The Twin Cities public transit system is "fraught with distrust" as feuding bureaucracies fail to set priorities in the best interests of the public, the Legislative Auditor reported Friday.

The unusually blunt report lays most of the blame on the Metropolitan Council, an appointed group that oversees regional transit, saying it "lacks adequate credibility and accountability."

While daily operations of the Twin Cities bus and rail transit are among the more efficient and reliable in the nation, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said, the bureaucracies have deprived the Twin Cities of a well-planned transit system.

"There is no agreed-upon way to determine which projects are best for the region," audit manager Judy Randall told a legislative commission that heard the findings. "There's widespread belief that the next transit way to be developed is the one that is ready next, or the one that has the most political capital behind it, not necessarily the one based on ridership projections."

Nobles added, "Reform is needed. Reform will not be easy to accomplish."

The audit recommended improving accountability of the Met Council by having a mix of appointed members and elected local officials. Currently, the governor appoints all of the members.

Susan Haigh, Gov. Mark Dayton's newly appointed Metropolitan Council chair, defended her agency and disputed some of the audit findings.

"The credibility issue is a little overstated," she told legislators. In a written response to the audit, she said, "This concern appears to come from a few agencies with scopes and priorities that may differ from those of the council." She said the recommendations "require further study and broader discussion."

The report said setting priorities will become increasingly important as the state confronts a projected $6.2 billion budget deficit and transit funds become more scarce. It said the Legislature should not commit money to build more transitways without ensuring that operating revenue will be available for the first five to 10 years of a new system.

Auditors described an elaborate patchwork of bureaucracies whose roles and missions overlap or collide in planning and managing Twin Cities transit.

'It's a spiderweb'

Using an overhead screen, Randall depicted the roles of the numerous agencies that exercise some authority over transit: the Met Council, an advisory board, seven regional railroad authorities, seven county boards, a special panel that spends a 1/4 cent sales tax and six suburban bus operations.

In addition, there's a multitude of task forces and commissions. "If I had listed all of that, it would have taken up the whole screen," Randall said.

"There are no lines of hierarchy," she said. "It's more like a spiderweb in terms of lines of authority. Each of these organizations is independent in some ways, but also has an overlapping role in others."

More than $300 million was spent on a myriad of urban and suburban transit in 2009, a 24 percent increase since 2005, the audit found.

One suburban legislator who heard the report complained about the decisionmaking process.

"People are interested in how decisions get made," said Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. "I've asked, and I get a different answer from nearly everyone I ask."

"I'm not surprised," replied Randall.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210