Is this any way to build a transportation system?

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.

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)

  • jon

    If you have a bad system, that doesn’t work, so people work around it, it only proves your system works…

    Legislature won’t do squat to fund public transportation so the counties take matters into their own hands, public transportation gets built so the the system must work*!

    *except for people in woodbury, no system in MN ever works for the people of woodbury… you’d think they’d take the hint at some point and secede from the state 😉

  • Mike

    Is there any analysis or disclosure of who funds the campaigns of state legislators? The opposition to mass transit is so over the top that it makes me think it might be a campaign finance issue. In other words, if oil companies or their affiliated “think tanks” or lobbying organizations are funding outstate and/or Republican legislative campaigns, at least that would make sense. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and it’s pretty obvious we have the best democracy money can buy in this country.

    Otherwise, it’s only rank stupidity, but of course that’s always a possibility.

  • Joe

    Wait so are you upset the state didn’t fund the SWLRT, or that Washington County isn’t getting more transit? Or both?

    I’d say I’m upset with both, but I view yesterday as a very good day. As the Met Council said, though using certificates for the project wasn’t the board’s first choice, “the only bad option would be to walk away from this project.” “If we walk away from this project we are breaking a promise and the partnerships that we’ve built,” they said. “We risk walking away from all these other great projects [along the line] that are in various stages of planning.”

    I’d also say that the DFL really screwed themselves when they opted not to try for any transportation funding when they controlled all three branches in 2013-14.

    • What part of what I wrote confuses you specifically? If you let me know, perhaps I can probably clear it up.

      I think I pretty well describe a broken system.

    • tboom

      So what you’re saying, the only way to get anything done in this state is to give Democrats control of the legislative and executive branches?

  • And to think, just 70 or so years ago the Twin Cities had one of the finest public transit systems in the U.S…extending from Lake Minnetonka to Stillwater. A transit system that was eventually destroyed by greed.

  • Gary F

    But isn’t that how big government works? You want other people to pay for stuff. Washington County should be happy to pay.

    • Tim

      So we here in the metro don’t have to pay for things in outstate MN? Cool, I’ll take that deal. Fair’s fair, after all.

      • A lot of this traces back to the utter stupidity of making budgetary items a part of the Minnesota Constitution.

        • Jeff

          Can you elaborate? I’m ignorant.

    • Rob

      If you don’t want other people paying into Medicare and Social Security for your benefit, raise your hand.

      • Khatti

        Um…I tell you Gary might.

  • fromthesidelines21

    As an ‘Outstater’ I would be happy if the legislature got their act together and have a good mass transit system for the entire metro. It would be great to fly in or park my car somewhere and let the trains take me where I need to go. I’m sure the city folk would prefer I not share the road with them.

    I know there is opposition to mass transit from rural MN but we need functional transportation out here as well, and it would be nice to have the support of the metro area that is unlikely to use it.

  • Tim

    In a way, though, I can see this hurting non-metro lawmakers (and greater Minnesota in general) in the long run, because it shows that the metro can still do things if they really want to with or without outstate support. As such, it gives them much less leverage and bargaining power in the future — the metro is much able to go it alone than outstate can, if it comes to it. Minnesota Miracle? What’s that?

  • Anna

    I live in northeast Washington County and I have turned down jobs from recruiters because I HATE the commute into Minneapolis. I won’t work in downtown Minneapolis period. I have better uses for my time than to spend an hour and a half in traffic five days a week not to mention the wear and tear on an aging vehicle.

    St. Paul is marginally better only because it is a smaller urban city and because of the construction changes to 35E. There is a bottleneck at Hwy 110 and the convergence of 494 and 35E North every afternoon from 3:30 p.m. on. There is no way to fix it without eminent domain tactics. There is no available real estate to build more lanes.

    If there were a light rail spur to the northeast suburbs it would probably reduce rush hour traffic by a third.

    It’s time to let the rural representatives and senators know that we need adequate commuter rail and bus service from the metro suburbs and the hell with the attitude, “What’s In It For Me.”.

    • Khatti

      Um….I’m afraid that I’m having trouble viewing my self-interest as being innately more selfish than your self-interest.

  • lindblomeagles

    One wonders if Washington County would have gone to the front of the line if it agreed to a proposed LRT line from Saint Paul to Hudson. That said, LRT and subway lines in general, are prone to NIMBY and nativists sentiments — the unquestionable feeling criminals will ride the line into “safe,” “clean,” “respectable” communities. And in the absence of actual data to back up this claim, the “government should not create entitlement programs” theorists pick up the ball afterwards, reminding us how “they” have already “carried” the less fortunate. People often forget Governor Ventura BULLYING the Legislature into giving us our first LRT along Hiawatha. Ventura might not have had his marbles most of the time, but on LRT and other transit ideas, Ventura did his home work, studying LRTs all across the country while gaining a quick understanding of how to move his political rivals out of the way. We don’t like bullies in politics, but sometimes they’re useful in removing irrational gatekeepers from the door.

    • No, they wouldn’t have. They went to the back of the line because they didn’t have projects near ready. I believe at the time they helped create CTIB, light rail was still an option, but it was too far off. It was only later, I believe, that the county ditched light rail (and also commuter rail) because of the cost.

      If the county had embrace light rail, I suspect there’d currently be no hope for transit in the corridor. At least with the bus, it has a pulse.

  • Gary F

    And I’m thinking of moving to Dakota County to get away from Ramsey County and St Paul.

    • Joe

      You write this on every post about the cities. What’s the point?

    • Rob

      Enough with the thinking.

  • crystals

    Legislation by exhaustion is a GREAT (and fitting) line.

  • Jeff

    Just like climate change, it’s all about ideology and facts aren’t important. Anti-transit is a litmus test for the Republican base. It’s a vocal minority who decide what’s best for the rest of us.

    • Sam M

      Please enlighten with facts and figures. I’d like to see a good pro-forma financial analysis that proves it’s a net benefit.

      • Jeff

        I doubt few transportation projects including roads and bridges have a cost benefit analysis done on them. Please name a modern functioning metropolitan area that doesn’t have a multi-modal integrated transportation system. We spent $690M on a bridge to nowhere (Wisconsin) that benefits relatively few people without nearly the controversy.

        • Sam M

          Yeah that bridge project is a little perplexing. The old bridge was definitely strained and traffic downtown Stillwater was definitely a struggle.

          I would say we have a modern functioning system as it stands so that would be one.

          Maybe we should start demanding some real financial analysis on these projects.

          • Jeff

            Yes, true I doubt we could agree on what a modern functioning system is. But I know visiting other places in the world (and in many US cities including our competitors) you can get from A to B in a reasonable time most anytime of the day or night without a car or transferring from one bus to another.

          • Once that bridge is open, you won’t recognize New Richmond. There’s going to be massive development on that side of the bridge. There are going to be a lot of rich former farmers over there.

  • Khatti

    This may be an ignorant question, but what exactly is the common bitch among outstate lawmakers? Is light-rail unamerican, socialist, satanic? True, we need money for transportation out here, the section of Highway 14 I live along is as smooth as a washboard, but I can think of lots of ways I would benefit from light-rail in the metro. I would love to be able to leave my car in Burnsville or Shakopee and go see the MSO.

  • It’s nothing like what you’re going to see. I’ll take you up in the plane sometime and from the air…the whole bridge impact will make immediate sense from a sprawl/growth standpoint. St. Croix County ain’t seen nothing yet.

  • Khatti

    Sigh…yeah.

  • Rob

    Given the growth that will accompany the new bridge to/from Sconnie, it’s a cryin’ shame that a light rail corridor wasn’t made part of the construction package.

  • Rob

    Oi! Good point