Since Washington County, the official county of NewsCut, joined the Counties Transit Improvement Board in 2008, raising the sales tax to help a regional solution to transit, it’s waited for its turn for a slice of the pie. But there were other projects in bigger counties to come first — Northstar, the Green Line light rail, a bus to Burnsville and, now, the Southwest Corridor light rail project.
The county got a commuter bus service from Forest Lake, but early on, that was pretty much it. Not having projects ready to go, CTIB’s priorities were elsewhere. That’s the way it goes for regional solutions. You get in line. You wait your turn, and you hope a deal is a still a deal in this state.
So it was significant Wednesday when Washington County, a pretty small player in the big scheme of things, agreed to subsidize another transit system that doesn’t directly benefit it: Southwest light rail, the project that paralyzed the Minnesota Legislature in the last session.
There’s a reason Minnesota is a transportation backwater and the duct-tape approach filling the vacuum of a failed government is a primary one. Nobody believes what happened Wednesday constitutes good public policy. As a letter-writer to the Star Tribune called it today, it’s “legislation by exhaustion.”
The Legislature, still dominated in the House by non-metro lawmakers, hates light rail, so it stymied attempts to fund Southwest light rail. Negotiations between Republicans and the governor collapsed, requiring the end-around in which counties fund the projects.
Dakota County has already had enough. It’s dropping out, leaving only four counties behind.
And so Gov. Dayton and the Metropolitan Council came up with the latest funding scheme: CTIB would promise to throw in more cash to the light rail project. Easy, right?
“This is not a good option,” said Adam Duininck, the Met Council chair. But he said further delay could add to costs and price the project out of reach. “We gave the governor and Legislature as much time as we possibly could.”
CTIB had already voted to throw in more money for a Minneapolis-to-Burnsville rapid-transit bus line. Now it’s in for the light-rail bailout.
That money has to come from somewhere. Either other projects will need to be sacrificed for the benefit of commuters elsewhere, or the sales tax to fund CTIB will have to be increased. Or both.
Washington County commissioner Lisa Weik told me via Twitter yesterday that it’s still unclear whether sales taxes will have to go up for its residents.
@ThisIsMPah TBD. Funding requests to 2017 mnleg expected by MC. If appropriations rc'd, MC will reimburse CTIB per provisions adopted today
— Lisa Weik (@LisaWeik) August 31, 2016
The state’s House of Representatives, however, can smell the blood in the water.
Transit projects are circling the drain and there’s no reason — absent the DFL taking control of the House — to expect it to relent on its opposition to it. Why should it?
When Washington County, whose contribution is the equivalent of loose change on the bureau compared to Hennepin and Ramsey counties, voted for the tax increase in 2008, commissioners faced a room full of opponents when doing so, insisting “it’s time would come.”
Wednesday’s action makes that promise ring more hollow, and it becomes a tougher sell to send tax dollars to west metro projects when the east metro is already concerned that jobs are migrating out of Washington County.
Is it possible Washington County would follow Dakota County and drop out of CTIB? Nobody is saying that. The county still hopes to get funding for a Woodbury-to-St. Paul bus line (Gov. Dayton is to discuss that project in Woodbury Thursday afternoon). But even under the most rosy scenarios, that won’t happen until 2023.
Anti-transit interests need only steer the House to keep doing what it’s been doing — nothing — to potentially further fracture CTIB. That’d be a win for them.
That’s the concern of Anoka County Commissioner Scott Shulte, who says CTIB’s bailout of Southwest light rail signals the Legislature that the metro area doesn’t need state help if it can fund transit on its own.
“When do we say enough is enough?” he asked.
With the abject failure of the state’s leaders to agree on a vision, pretty soon.
Related commentary: Southwest light rail is transit done wrong, at enormous cost (Star Tribune)