A regional collaboration on transit plans breakup

Counties Transit Improvement Board took a first step toward dissolving in January

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, center, chairing the Jan. 18 Counties Transit Improvement Board meeting. The board is planning to dissolve itself. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Frustrations with the state legislature have pushed members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board to begin the process of splitting up, potentially ending a collaboration on regional transit planning and funding that began in 2008.

A resolution declaring the board’s “preliminary intent to dissolve” passed on an 8–3 vote at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting. The board has set a February deadline for all five CTIB member counties to agree on a plan for the breakup, and under that schedule the board could hold its final meeting as early as June.

The plan is all about finding a way to work around the state legislature, where Republicans have largely blocked funding for metro-area transit projects in recent years. The state’s commitment to capital costs on those projects is usually around 10 percent, but when it failed to kick-in its full share for the $1.9-billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project last year, CTIB, Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council partnered to fill the $144.5-million hole.

The idea behind the dissolution is to allow CTIB’s member counties to swap one state-authorized transportation tax for another to raise additional revenue and cover what would have been the state’s share of transit projects.

The state legislation that created CTIB allows each of the member counties to collect a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 motor-vehicle sales tax for transit funding. But non-CTIB counties may collect up to a half-cent for transportation, revenues that can be applied to roads and bridges in addition to transit.

Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said CTIB’s dissolution could make planning and paying for regional transit projects more complicated. But it may be the only way for its member counties to avoid wrangling with the legislature over bus and light rail projects.

“One of the major holdups in the last couple of years has been the state’s share of the capital cost of these projects,” Duininck said. “Many at the CTIB board believe this is a better way to have a regional vision. I do worry about the impacts on our regional network, in so far as counties are looking at their individual needs.”

State Sen. Scott Dibble, the ranking DFLer on the Senate’s Transportation and Finance Policy Committee, described the potential dissolution of CTIB as “a shame,” but said he supported the move “as a matter of practicality.”

“(It’s) a consequence of the fact that Republicans are so intransigent and refuse to respond to what is the obvious and glaring need for transit investments in the metro area,” Dibble said.

Questions of fairness

To date, CTIB has spent nearly $1 billion on local transit project and helped to leverage close to $1.5 billion in federal funds for transit.

To reach an agreement on dissolution, the board’s member counties will have to decide how to divide amongst themselves CTIB’s future funding commitments. CTIB, for instance, covers half the net operating subsidy for regional transitway projects and is committed to a 27.8-percent share (up to $516.5 million) of the capital costs for SWLRT, the state’s largest-ever transportation project.

Questions about how each county will fare when the funds they have pooled into CTIB drain back into county coffers led to the divided vote on Jan. 18. The “no” votes came from one of the two Anoka County board members and both members from Dakota County.

“Hennepin County is going to be the great receiver of a great deal of CTIB funds,” said Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte, who ultimately voted in favor of the resolution.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who chairs CTIB, said that was simply a matter of scheduling. Most of CTIB’s recently approved grants are for projects in Hennepin County, McLaughlin noted.

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who voted against the resolution, suggested CTIB members might have pushed for more investment in their own areas if they knew dissolution was on the horizon.

“What we don’t want to be responsible for is future projects in Hennepin County and other counties that Anoka is not a part of,” Schulte added.

Seeing value
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said he didn’t think there was a dissolution plan that could satisfy all five CTIB member counties. But McDonough said there was “value and benefit” for each in the dissolution.

That value includes a potential increase in tax revenue for the counties. But since those funds would be available for road and bridge projects in addition to transit, it raises the possibility that regional transit priorities will have to compete even more fiercely against demands for improvements to the state’s motor-vehicle infrastructure.

“Within individual counties, that decision will have to be made,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s fair to say a county like Dakota will be spending money on roads, and that would be their prerogative. And that’s one reason they wanted to withdraw.”

CTIB’s dissolution may also alter the debate at the state capitol, where Republican opposition to funding SWLRT stood in the way of a bonding bill last session.

“Southwest ended up being kind of a little bit of a hang-up last session, and if that’s resolved and people move on and are ready to move on, maybe that can clear the way for other big, important stuff to go on,” Duininck said.