Anoka County commissioners today voted 4-to-3 to pull out of the Northern Lights Express project, which sought to bring passenger rail service from Minneapolis (via Coon Rapids) to Duluth, an idea which is pretty well dead without Anoka County’s support, its commissioner says.
“We are an integral part of the completion of that line; us pulling out I think will, ultimately, kill it,” Commissioner Matt Look, chair of the county’s regional rail authority, told the Pioneer Press.
Look told the paper he’s worried about the amount of money Anoka County would need to hand over for the $1 billion project. It’s expected to be about $10 million, although he thinks it could be as much as $100 million.
His concerns echo those voiced by taxpayers in counties other than Anoka, who — in March 2008 – ponied up an additional sales tax beyond the gas tax increase approved by the Legislature.
Most Much of the money in transit-poor counties like Washington County was diverted to places where there were mass transit projects on the table — Hennepin and Anoka, with projects like Anoka County’s Northstar commuter rail project (update: And Ramsey, of course, with the Central Corridor).
But that line has been a disappointment from the start. Its projected ridership is down, and Metro Transit is reducing fares to try to get people out of their cars and onto the train.
Conceptually, Northstar was supposed to run from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, but there wasn’t enough money to extend the line past Big Lake. And the reality is: Not many people — or at least enough people — want to go to Big Lake.
By “pooling” its sales tax money from other counties, Anoka County unloaded the Northstar project from its property tax payers. Anoka County’s pullout from another mass transportation project exposes the reality of such dependency in transit planning: You can’t always
trust depend on your partners to reciprocate when it’s your turn.
Update 2:15 p.m. 6/14/12 – Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, mentioned above, called to say the original post contained “a significant failure to relay correct information.” He indicated that this is passenger rail, rather than commuter rail. In rereading the post together, it was clear that he objected to the last paragraph, which he believes said his board could not be trusted.
That’s not what I wrote and while I can’t defend words I didn’t write, I can further explain the ones I did. One of the funding mechanisms in building a mass transit system for Minnesota was an increased sales tax in certain counties; five of the metro counties voted to impose the sales tax, two did not — the goal was an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state. The Northern Lights project is not funded by that tax, and I regret the impression that it was.
In the buildout of transportation solutions, “partners” — counties, in some cases — are obliged to subsidize transportation projects in other counties. Those projects may be under the control of any number of agencies and boards, several of whom may have been created after the vote to increase the sales tax. (Note: NLX funding presently comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, bonding money from MnDOT, Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration, and local cities and counties.)
Why did I bring up the sales tax increase in five counties if the money doesn’t go for Northern Lights? Because an overall vision for a mass transportation infrastructure in the state necessarily comes back to the contentious gas-tax legislation. It’s the last time a public engaged itself in the question of “what’s my role in developing a transportation infrastructure that may primarily benefit someone else?” (For the record, the previous contentious debate was just a few years earlier when voters approved a constitutional amendment dedicating a percentage of the motor vehicle sales tax to transit projects.)
As the link above shows, when Anoka County approved an increase in the sales tax for transit, it did so to get the Northstar rail project off the property tax, and at least one commissioner — the late Scott LeDoux — did so with the idea that outsiders (visitors to the National Sports Center in Blaine) would shoulder some of the burden for a project that benefited primarily Anoka County residents. It’s under that vision for the responsibility for paying for transportation projects, that I invoked the sales tax increase in the overall transportation system funding question. It renews the same question last asked during that contentious debate.
The debate in several counties when the expanded sales tax and gas tax increase was pitched did not center around the role of one board or another board, or even one project or another project, it centered on a single question: What do we get out of this?
The same perspective that Commissioner Look provides in deciding not to put more money into passenger rail, sounds pretty familiar to the refrain of those who didn’t benefit from light-rail asking why they should pay for Minneapolis or St. Paul’s exploits in that arena. The commissioner’s question isn’t unreasonable now; it wasn’t an unreasonable question then. What’s the answer?
The structure of financing for many transportation projects comes under the direction of several boards, agencies, and partners. There is no guarantee that any one of them will agree with any other board, agency or partner on any component of that buildout, when it comes time to deliver on a specific mass transportation project. So while a transit-poor county, like Washington County, used as an example above, has agreed to be part of the metro-wide transit solution, it did so very much on faith.
Some people are disappointed by the decision in Anoka County. Some people aren’t. It doesn’t matter to me what side of that people are on. My observation is simply that articles of faith in matters of mass transportation projects in Minnesota sometimes go unrewarded. Anoka County isn’t obligated to help with a project that may be of benefit to, say, St. Louis County, just because it got some help easing a taxpayer burden for Northstar from some outsiders. And if you’re thinking about an overall transportation system for Minnesota, it would be a mistake to think it does.
Commissioner Look’s concerns are principled, which is why I’ve asked him to write an addition to this post which states his position. He has declined to do so at this time.
Update 2:46 p.m. 6/15 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has submitted this response:
This blog post seems to overlook the willingness and leadership of five counties to help create a stronger transportation system in the metro area. The fact is that every investment decision regarding the five-county sales tax has been a unanimous decision of the Counties Transit Improvement Board. These decisions supported a project that was consistent with the Metro Council’s transportation plan for the region. So I’d like to address the specific concerns of what has been written in Tuesday’s blog post and Thursday’s update.
· Blog Post: “One of the funding mechanisms in building a mass transit system for Minnesota was an increased sales tax in certain counties; five of the metro counties voted to impose the sales tax, two did not — the goal was an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state. The Northern Lights project is not funded by that tax, and I regret the impression that it was.”
Fact: The goal of the five-county sales tax was not “an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state.” It was to expand high level transit in the participating five counties. That’s why bringing the sales tax into a discussion of NLX is grossly misleading.
· Blog Post: “So while a transit-poor county, like Washington County, used as an example above, has agreed to be part of the metro-wide transit solution, it did so very much on faith.”
Fact: CTIB has guaranteed Washington County an annual grant of 3% of all the revenues generated by the five-county sales tax. The guaranteed annual grant is more than half the money generated in Washington County (less than 6% of the five-county sales tax is generated in Washington County).
· Blog Post: “By “pooling” its sales tax money from other counties, Anoka County unloaded the Northstar project from its property tax payers. Anoka County’s pullout from another mass transportation project exposes the reality of such dependency in transit planning: You can’t always trust depend on your partners to reciprocate when it’s your turn.”
Fact: None of the original capital investment for Northstar came from the five-county sales tax. CTIB funds have been used for the Fridley and Ramsey Stations, added or being added after the counties’ portion of the original capital costs have been paid using property tax dollars. The five counties are now paying for 50% of the operating costs of Northstar. That responsibility has been “unloaded,” but not all of the investment for Northstar.
· Blog Post: “Most Much of the money in transit-poor counties like Washington County was diverted to places where there were mass transit projects on the table — Hennepin and Anoka, with projects like Anoka County’s Northstar commuter rail project (update: And Ramsey, of course, with the Central Corridor).”
Fact: Even the corrected statement is misleading. Cedar Avenue busway, a project of Dakota County, has also received significant funding from the five-count sales tax. So, that means that Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey, and Dakota, have received significant funding. That would be four of the five counties. And Washington County has not only received a guarantee of receiving more than half it contributions, it also was permitted to use the funds for planning and subsidization of express busses, something only projects in Washington County are permitted to do. This was designed specifically to respond to the fact that Washington County didn’t have projects that were as ready to go as other counties.
Is there a risk in joint multi-county efforts? Yes, but these five counties have seen fit to work together and invest almost a half a billion dollars in transit expansion. In the process, working together, they have helped bring over half a billion dollars in federal investment into the region, investment that would otherwise have gone to other regions with which we compete each and every day.
The issues associated with passenger rail are different. Moreover, the system is under the leadership of MNDOT, not Met Council. The mixing of the two systems, as this articles does, is terribly confusing at best.