Why can’t Washington County get a transportation break?

Is there a way for cities not named Minneapolis or St. Paul to get a break when it comes to a transportation future?

On the Minnesota 2020 Web site, Conrad deFiebre analyzed the habits of Washington County commuters.

Only 1.3 percent of Washington County commuters used transit in 2000, according to the U.S. Census, while 93.3 percent drove; walking and working at home accounted for the rest. Getting to work by bus from the county’s mix of second- and third-ring suburbs, semirural expanses and pioneer cities along the St. Croix River took an average of 47 minutes, nearly double the median commute by car.

It’s true that Washington County residents are in love with their cars despite high energy prices. They don’t have much choice, although they’ve proven their interest in a solution. The most recent survey from the census bureau, for example, showed that Washington County residents have the highest percentage of car poolers in Minnesota.

Why don’t Washington County residents use transit? Because there’s no transit to use. When Gov. Pawlenty and the Legislature closed a budget deficit in 2002-2003, Metro Transit cut bus service to Washington County, over the strong objections of people who lived there. The buses were full

Transportation decisions for Washington County, for the most part, aren’t being made by Washington County, but by the Met Council. Washington County residents, including some members of the County Board, are concerned that sales tax money from the county will go, instead, to more powerful counties like Hennepin and Anoka.

Says deFiebre

A commuter bus service from Forest Lake got Washington County’s only original slice of the five-county sales tax pot, equal to about one-quarter of the county’s contributions. Other counties that have heavily invested property taxes in rail transit initiatives — something Washington County hasn’t done yet — fared much better.

True. Property taxes in Anoka County, for example, paid for commuter rail stations. And now those property taxes will come down, partly because taxpayers from outside Anoka County are pooling the sales tax increase.

But what deFiebre doesn’t say is plans for rail transportation can’t get off the drawing board in less populous counties because the deck is stacked against them. Of the 16 members of the most powerful agency in such matters — the Met Council — only 2 are from Washington County. On the Counties Transit Improvement Board — the agency that will dole out the transit tax money — Washington County has minority representation.

A September 2008 MPR story on the transportation tax increase bears this out, when the topic of commuter rail in the county comes ups:

But Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld said the route is short on ridership – projections suggest only 1,600-1,800 riders would ride Red Rock every day by 2030, compared to predictions of nearly 5,600 a day by 2030 for the Northstar commuter rail, which opens next year.

“Possibly something will change; possibly development patterns will change. But for the foreseeable future, Red Rock simply doesn’t look like a promising corridor for rail,” Dornfeld said.

So Washington County can’t look forward to commuter rail until 2030, according to the Met Council. In a battle with Northstar, which is what this is, commuter rail in Washington County can’t win. More people live in cities served by Northstar than in Washington County.

Some candidates for the county board complain that the current commissioners unwisely opted into a quarter-cent general sales tax for Twin Cities rapid bus and rail development — and then got shortchanged when it came to dividing the revenue with more transit-rich counties to the west.

That’s not entirely true. It’s not just candidates for the County Board who are complaining about how the Washington County tax money got spent. Two of the board members to vote against the tax complained too. And so did commissioners who voted for it.. But their point isn’t so much that there shouldn’t be a transit tax, it’s that the tax money of Washington County should be spent for transit in Washington County.

Says deFiebre:

It’s up to this 160-year-old county’s citizens and their leaders to design and finance an appropriate mix of transit and highway infrastructure that will serve it well for the next 160 years.

When Minnesota 2020 was urging metro counties to join the Counties Transit Improvement Board (i.e. pool sales tax increase money) last summer, it was on the promise of a regional solution to transportation issues. That Washington County is now considering pulling out is born from the deFiebre’s message: “Washington County, you’re on your own.”

  • The Met Council has its own plans – and is remarkably profligate with the money they have. The Central Corridor cost of $900M would be less than a third that, based on experience in Portland and other cities, if the appropriate technology was used. But the Met Council won’t hear it. That means there’s nothing left over for you guys in Washington County or any other place that needs transit.

    People tell me that the commitment to the Central Corridor is important. I agree. The problem is that we measure commitment in dollars, which is a huge mistake. We have only so much money to go around and several hundred miles of transit to build. If they think that $80M or so per mile is acceptable, we will never be able to afford what we need.

    It’s really as simple as allocation of resources. And the Met Council is terrible at this.

  • Washington County does have some transit (express bus services), but it doesn’t get much for a practical reason — population density. Building efficient mass transit doesn’t make sense when the mass to transport live far away, even from each other.

    As for fairness in the tax structure, that is a worthy question, but an entirely different one.

  • Bob Collins

    That’s true in SOME sections of the county, Bruce, but not entirely. Take Woodbury, for example, less than 11 miles from the center of St. Paul. You can’t get a bus after 7:50 in the morning, but not because people weren’t riding it. They were, as I pointed out in the piece. And neighborhood circulator buses that picked people up and brought them to a Park and Ride were removed (they were originally set up after Metro Transit eliminated stops in the city).

    They weren’t removed because there weren’t passengers. They were removed because state leader cut funding for transit and routes in politically-weak areas were vulnerable.

    I see the bus through downtown St. Paul running all day about every 10 minutes. They’re half-empty. I see one bus out of Woodbury, for example, eliminated, when it was full.


    The article I referred in the piece was written by a guy who lives in Minneapolis. There, the fault always lies with the people in the suburbs, and not the people who make the decisions, who don’t.

  • Neither I nor MN2020 ever urged Washington County to opt into the metro transit sales tax. In fact, I called for county-by-county public referenda on it, as has been done successfully across the country. The Legislature and the Chamber of Commerce chose the more direct route of county board actions, which certainly speeds the process but poses political challenges.

    As I pointed out at the forum in Stillwater, Washington County is, at best, marginally situated for efficient transit development. It has been unable to win certification for federal funding for the Rush and Red Rock commuter rail initiatives.

    But that doesn’t mean the county is on its own. The Red Rock may be able to piggyback on improved tracks of a high-speed passenger rail line from Chicago to St. Paul. And bus or rail rapid transit in the I-94 corridor could happen well before 2030.

    Furthermore, Washington County will benefit greatly from hundreds of millions of dollars of statewide investment in the Wakota, Stillwater and Hastings highway bridges.

    And I never tried to pin any blame on suburbanites. I don’t know where Bob Collins lives, and I don’t care when it comes to judging the accuracy of his reporting or the wisdom of his analysis. But I do wish he wouldn’t engage in that kind of silly divisiveness.