The most striking thing about the omnibus transportation financing package unveiled Friday before the House Transportation Finance Committee might be what isn’t in it.
No statewide gas tax hike. No expanded metro area, transit-oriented sales tax. No major infusion of dollars for new road and mass transit projects.
All were major provisions discussed in preceding months at length by lawmakers. All were left out.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s comments earlier this week reinforcing his opposition to increasing the gas tax meant a plan for sweeping new transit and road investments fell apart, leading Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), the committee chair, to present a scaled-back bill that adds up to what disappointed transit advocates called a “status quo” transportation budget. The committee is expected to approve HF1444 next week.
“It’s not the bill I wanted to bring forward,” a disappointed Hornstein said. Later, he added: “We had a very different bill five days ago, a week ago.”
A companion, SF1173, sponsored by Sen. D. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls), awaits action after it was tabled Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee.
Dayton’s opposition to an increased statewide gas tax comes despite the recommendation that it be raised last year by an advisory group he formed. Without that tax hike, lawmakers have said, striking a balance between an infusion of new funding for metro rail and bus projects and Greater Minnesota road and bridge improvements became more difficult.
Instead, the budget bill includes more modest aims, like an additional $11 million appropriation in the next biennium for Greater Minnesota transit; widening the authorization for Greater Minnesota counties to impose local option transportation sales and wheelage taxes; establishing a program for completing highway projects critical to commerce; and increasing the driver’s license filing fee.
Over nearly two hours of testimony, transit advocates made clear their displeasure at the lack of new investment in a number of planned Twin Cities transit lines while thanking Hornstein for his efforts. Amanda Duerr, a lobbyist for the Highway 14 Coalition – a group that has stepped up a decades-long push to remake a dangerous stretch of southern Minnesota highway – expressed her disappointment that her group’s long-awaited project, and others like it, weren’t included.
“If only everyone shared your vision we’d be discussing a much better bill today,” she told Hornstein.
While many testified about their displeasure with what the bill wouldn’t do, Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee), the Republican lead on the committee, noted the $1.7 billion budgeted for state road construction over the next biennium “is the largest highway appropriation in the history of the state.“