Legislators commute to highlight transit funding needs

At least 25 join Roll With Us Transit Challenge

Sen. Scott Dibble, left, and Rep. Frank Hornstein chatted at a Minneapolis light-rail station as both commuted to work at the state capitol. Credit: Dylan Thomas

THE WEDGE — At least 25 state legislators pledged to ride buses and trains to work at the state capitol this week to draw attention to the need for more dedicated transit funding.

Those lawmakers are taking part in the March 1–7 Roll With Us Transit Challenge co-sponsored by 13 local organizations, including nonprofits ISAIAH and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Transit advocates say transit funding has been flat for a decade, even as more people opt to make it part of their daily lives.

“It’s a big conversation and a priority at the capitol this session,” Lars Negstad, a strategic campaign coordinator with ISAIAH, said. “The need (for transit funding) is big and growing, and it’s a need that, from our perspective, you need new revenue to fix it.”

Over the past decade, bus ridership rose 14 percent in the metro area and 25 percent in the rest of Minnesota, Negstad said. Metro Transit users logged more than 84.5 million individual trips in 2014, the highest total in more than three decades, the agency reported in January.

Gov. Mark Dayton in January proposed a transportation funding package that would invest $6 billion over a decade into roads, bridges and transit, including $280 million per year in additional revenue for Twin Cities and suburban transit funded though a half-cent sales tax increase in the seven-county metro area. A different transportation funding proposal from Senate DFLers includes a three-quarter-cent metro sales tax increase and would raise $351 million annually for transit, local roads and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Negstad said the existing quarter-cent sales tax was “instrumental in building out the light-rail system,” but that money is dedicated to capital expansion and operation of transitways as opposed to regular bus and light-rail operations.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have pitched a much smaller transportation funding package that includes no new revenue dedicated to transit. The $750-million package includes $200 million for local roads and bridges taken from the state budget surplus.

“For the time being, the House is reluctant to raise any revenue around transit,” Sen. Scott Dibble, co-author of the Senate transportation funding bill, said.

On Monday, Dibble (District 61) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (61A) both started their commute to the capitol on a Metro Transit 6 bus from Southwest Minneapolis to downtown. As the bus pulled away from the Uptown Transit Center, Hornstein argued transit users are “less stressed, safer and save tons of money” compared to those who drive to and from work.

Hornstein said a strong transit system is also crucial to the local economy because it’s one factor in attracting younger workers who are less likely to own cars. The 6 bus was standing-room-only by the time it passed the Walker Art Center, and many of the riders appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.

“I’m the only bald guy on this bus,” Hornstein quipped.

He and Dibble exited the bus downtown and transferred to a Green Line light rail train for the second leg of their commute to St. Paul.

Both said that busy schedules and long days at the capitol could make relying solely on transit tough. Instead of busing home some nights, Hornstein opts to carpool with Rep. Jean Wagenius, a DFL colleague who represents an adjacent district.

Dibble said he usually commutes by transit only once every two weeks or so during a legislative session, but will sometimes bike to the capitol. He acknowledged Hornstein was the more dedicated bus rider.

But, Dibble added: “When we’re not in session, I almost never use my car.”