Walz pitches ‘generational investment’ in transit

Budget proposal targets some of Metro Transit’s biggest challenges

The Metro C Line is scheduled to open in June. Gov. Tim Walz's transit funding proposal envisions 10 new bus rapid transit lines opening in the next decade. Photo by Dylan Thomas

The reenergized late-winter sun had turned the vast parking lot behind Metro Transit’s North Loop headquarters into a great slush lake, but somehow a brand new Metro C-Line bus had been positioned for its photo op with barely a speck of slop on its fresh paintjob — just white drips of salt clinging to tires.

When the driver swung open the door, a few of the assembled dignitaries climbed aboard joking that the articulated bus, manufactured by New Flyer in St. Cloud and the first all-electric model in the fleet, still had that “new bus smell.” Among them was Gov. Tim Walz, whose first state budget proposal, released two days earlier, was hailed by Metro Transit leaders as the long-term funding solution they’ve been waiting for.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Wes Kooistra, who in January took over as general manager of Metro Transit, which operates the regional bus, light rail and commuter rail network.

Walz’s proposal for the 2020–2021 biennium includes new revenues for Metro Transit to maintain and expand regional bus service. It also creates a separate funding stream for Metro Mobility, targeting a primary factor behind the estimated $250 million deficit Metro Transit faces over the next decade.

Walz speaking at the unveiling of the first Metro C Line bus, the first all-electric model in Metro Transit's fleet. Standing behind Walz are (left to right) Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Metropolitan Council Chair Nora Slawik. Photo by Dylan Thomas
Walz speaking at the unveiling of the first Metro C Line bus, the first all-electric model in Metro Transit’s fleet. Standing behind Walz are (left to right) Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Metropolitan Council Chair Nora Slawik. Photo by Dylan Thomas

‘Living year-to-year’

Shifting state demographics are driving annual growth of 5–8 percent in Metro Mobility, Metro Transit’s service for elderly and disabled riders. And it costs more to operate than regular bus service, leaving less and less money for Metro Transit’s local bus routes.

Metro Transit is required to provide Metro Mobility services under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Like the system’s two light rail lines, which under statute get half their funding from the state and the other half from metro-area counties, funding for Metro Mobility is prioritized over local bus routes.

At a February Met Council Transportation Committee meeting, District 3 Council Member Jennifer Munt said without some solution, the continued growth of Metro Mobility would “force us to cannibalize our bus system.”

In 2017, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill that provided Metro Transit a one-time appropriation of $70 million. That was used to close a projected 2018–2019 budget deficit of $67.5 million. But that deficit was projected to grow to over $100 million in 2020–2021.

“We’ve been living year-to-year for quite some time now,” Kooistra said.

At the Capitol

Rep. Frank Hornstein, who chairs the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee in the state House, described the proposal for Metro Mobility as “very, very significant.” He said he was confident the new revenue identified by the governor could address Metro Transit’s structural deficit.

The proposal still needs the support of Hornstein’s colleagues in the Legislature. DFLers control the House, but the Republicans in the Senate majority have recoiled from Walz’s $50 billion budget plan.

Still, Hornstein predicted there was enough in Walz’s proposed $77 million transportation package, which also includes a 20-cent gas tax hike for road and bridge improvements, to please a statewide audience, noting the growing recognition that metro-area congestion is slowing the state’s economic engine.

Met Council Chair Nora Slawik made that same case at the all-electric bus unveiling, where she also announced the C-Line would begin operation June 8.

“Without real transit options, people will choose to commute on their own,” Slawik said.

Walz is proposing a one-eighth-cent sales tax in the seven-county metropolitan area that is projected to raise $770 million for buses over 10 years.

His budget also proposes an increase in the motor vehicle sales tax, which as recently as 2017 accounted for 55 percent of Metro Transit’s operating revenues. Under Walz’s plan, the motor vehicle sales tax would increase to 6.875 percent from 6.5 percent, raising another $205 million over the next decade for transit.

The transit package also includes $20 million in general obligation bonds for the next biennium and $230 million over the next decade.

‘Generational investment’

The governor’s office described the plan as a “generational investment” in transit. It envisions 10 new bus rapid transit lines like the Metro C-Line opening over the next decade.

The governor’s office says it would be the largest increase in bus service in 30 years and could boost ridership 40 percent in some of the busiest transit corridors. It also invests in a service that’s showing results.

Metro Transit ridership peaked in 2015 at 98.8 million rides and has declined since then. Transit users took 94.2 million rides in 2018, a 1.3 percent drop from the 95.4 million rides in 2017. Local bus ridership was down 4 percent.

The bright spots in Metro Transit’s 2018 ridership report were light rail, which saw a 5 percent increase in ridership, and bus rapid transit, with ridership growth of 1 percent. Bus rapid transit offers a similar experience to light rail, with off-board payment, platforms with more amenities, fewer stops and faster service.

Kooistra noted the opening of the Metro A-Line boosted ridership 33 percent in a corridor that includes East 46th Street in Minneapolis and Ford Parkway and Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

But if Walz’s transit package makes it through the Legislature, local bus routes might see some new amenities, too, including better shelters, investments in safety and security, improved access for disabled riders and better snow removal in the winter. And that could translate into a few more fares.

“Facing deficits of $50 million–$100 million each year, we began to only reduce the routes that were poorly performing, or eliminate those routes, and we weren’t reinvesting in the … routes showing higher demand,” Kooistra said. “Of course that ratchets you down in terms of ridership.”