Governor does his best to derail transit gains


Although Gov. Tim Pawlenty couldn’t stop the Legislature from overriding his veto of sorely needed new revenues for roads, bridges and transit, he’s doing his darnedest to nullify some of those advances that are so vital to Minnesota’s economic competitiveness.

Voices: Governor does his best to derail transit gains

The governor’s supplemental budget calls for a $30 million reduction in state General Fund support of regional transit operations, which include Metro Transit’s buses and Hiawatha light-rail trains, six suburban opt-out bus systems and dial-a-ride services such as Metro Mobility.

According to the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities, this near 10 percent cut in overall transit funding – half of Metro Transit’s current General Fund allocation – would hit transit harder than any other state program under Pawlenty’s plan to erase a $935 million projected state budget deficit.

The proposal would virtually undo the $30.8 million one-time regional transit operating infusion the Legislature provided in the veto override via Twin Cities-area sales tax receipts. That money was needed because of a big hole in transit budgets left by declining revenues from the motor vehicle sales tax, which in a slowing economy has consistently fallen short of projections based on auto sales.

The February budget forecast, in fact, dug that hole $18 million deeper. As the phase-in of the vehicle sales tax dedication to roads and transit continues through 2012, real transit revenues from it are slipping, from $124 million in 2003 to $117 million in 2008. And those figures are NOT adjusted for inflation.

“Now we’re up to a $48 million shortfall,” said Metro Transit spokesman Steve Dornfeld. “At that rate, we’ll have difficulty maintaining the service we have now, much less expanding it.”

So now the talk is of fare increases and service cuts, the familiar fallback that hits hardest those least able to pay. Metro Transit riders are already paying some of the nation’s highest fares, financing 30 percent of bus operations and a remarkable 38 percent of the cost of running the Hiawatha light rail line.

“More people than ever depend on the bus system to get around,” said Dave Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities. “Our urban bus lines are packed, and our suburban park-and-rides are filled to capacity. In a struggling economy, bus service should be the last thing we cut since it directly impacts many people’s abilities to reach their jobs.”

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell has warned that funding cuts could delay building of the Central Corridor light rail and the Cedar Avenue and I-35W busways.

This is just the latest episode in a 40-year fiscal shell game that has severely stunted transit development in Minnesota, leaving us far behind peer states and regions in economic performance.

Transit funding here has lurched from a short-lived wheelage tax on vehicles in the 1960s to a seven-county property tax to the vehicle sales tax. The veto override will finally establish a metro general sales tax as a dedicated source of money for bus and rail transit, if county boards approve it.

Sales taxes have been the choice of most other U.S. cities for supporting transit, usually with rates at least double the quarter-cent authorized by our Legislature. Some places levy as much as a full cent on a dollar for transit.

Minnesota finally stands a chance to make progress on transit, let’s keep it on track.