Dakota County exit threatens transit vision

Is it still possible to come up with a regional and professional transportation policy in the Twin Cities?

The ongoing suburb v. city mentality, in the form of ongoing transit v. roads split that’s bedeviled Minnesota for a generation, is threatening to scuttle the multi-county Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB). It was formed in 2008 to try to solve the gridlock caused by Minnesota’s decision long ago to constitutionally dedicate the gas tax to roads and bridges.

Participating counties agreed to pool .5% sales tax increases in participating counties — Dakota, Ramsey, Hennepin, Washington, Anoka, Carver and Scott — to fund transit projects.

From the start, smaller counties worried that the big counties would overwhelm their mostly suburban projects, although supporters noted it would take a third county to agree.

Now, there are cracks in the arrangement, the Star Tribune reports.

Dakota County wants out; the county board voted yesterday to take steps to go it alone.

Figures prepared by county staff show that between 2008 and 2016, Dakota County contributed 13 percent of CTIB’s total transit tax, but got about 7 percent of its capital and operating grants.

Estimates based on CTIB’s 2015 list of projects show that by 2024, Dakota County would likely contribute 12 percent of the total funds but get back just 3 percent — a smaller allocation than any other participating county.

Dakota County has been part of CTIB since its inception. The decision to join came in part from a desire to use transit to move people across congested Minnesota River crossings, said Steve Mielke, director of the county’s physical development division. Now, though, there are pressing needs for projects within the county that CTIB may not be able to help fund.

Since 2008, smaller counties have been told by the larger ones that “your time will come” at which point the larger city-dominated counties will support the suburban projects. But their projects — like the Woodbury-to-St. Paul bus line in Washington County which won’t open until at least 2023 — have only been on the drawing board while the big projects — mostly light rail — were ready to go.

Indeed, a 2014 analysis on streets.mn showed that Ramsey County was the overwhelming recipient of funds even though Hennepin County taxpayers contributed most of the cash.

Whether Dakota County is playing “chicken” — hoping for a better deal — is something we’ll find out next week when the county board meets again.

The underpinning of much of this, of course, is the ideological split over transit, which has long been in the cross-hairs of many Republican lawmakers who view it as a waste of money.

It’s possible that a six-county transit board could survive, if other suburban counties don’t take Dakota County’s hint. It will be a test of whether any part of Minnesota can cooperate despite ideological and geographical differences and rivalries.