County board approves sales tax for transit projects

The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners has approved raising sales taxes a quarter of a percent to fund the expansion of transit options in the metro.

The commissioners voted 5-2 in favor of the tax on Tuesday, which will go into effect July 1. The sales tax is estimated to generate approximately $100 million for transit in 2009, with more than half of that amount collected in Hennepin County.

The tax means proposed light-rail transit (LRT) routes will see more funding, including the Central Corridor linking Downtown and St. Paul, the Southwest Corridor connecting Downtown with Eden Prairie, and the Bottineau Boulevard linking Downtown with the northwest suburbs, among other projects.

“This is the historic moment,” County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said following the vote. “We are establishing a dedicated funding source for the expansion of transitways throughout our region, including the Central, Southwest and Bottineau corridors.”

Hennepin Commissioners Mike Opat, Mark Stenglein, Gail Dorfman, Peter McLaughlin and Linda Koblick voted for the sales tax and Commissioners Randy Johnson and Penny Steele voted against it.

By giving the thumbs up to the sales tax, Hennepin joins metro counties Anoka, Dakota, Ramsey, and Washington in a joint powers agreement establishing the Counties Transit Improvement Board. Scott and Carver county commissioners voted against the tax.

A quarter percent sales tax increase reportedly amounts to 4 cents for every $20 spent.

McLaughlin, who also chairs the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) and represents much of Downtown Minneapolis, offered an amendment indicating that if the state of Minnesota seeks to use any of the sales tax revenues for regular operations of Metro Transit, Hennepin intends to withdraw from the Counties Transit Improvement Board and repeal imposition of the transit sales tax.

McLaughlin said that having a dedicated funding source also means the Twin Cities could compete with other major cities with burgeoning transit projects for matching federal funds.