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Transportation bill with boost in highway dollars — and without deep transit cuts — heads to Senate

By Jonathan Avise
A Metro Transit Green Line train near the State Capitol. House Photography file photo

Road and bridge funding remain the emphasis of a $5.9 billion, two-year omnibus transportation bill that underwent big changes in conference committee and was repassed Wednesday by the House.

But, despite the elimination of deep cuts to Twin Cities metropolitan area transit originally included in the bill — and an increase in funding for state road construction through the shift of tax revenues from the General Fund — it still appears likely to face a veto from a skeptical Gov. Mark Dayton.

The House repassed the conference committee report on HF861, sponsored by Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska), on a 75-56 vote. It would transfer around $300 million in auto-related tax revenues out of the General Fund over the next two years, borrow $600 million for state road construction and the Corridors of Commerce Program, and make a number of policy changes.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) is the sponsor.

Supporters of the Republican plan said during Wednesday’s House Floor debate that it represents a needed boost in funding for road and bridge construction across the state.

“We need to prioritize transportation as one of those critical legs of the stool that keeps Minnesota healthy and working,” Torkelson said, defending the shift of General Fund dollars. He called it “a substantial bill.”

DFLers criticized the bill as a Band-Aid that doesn’t address the state’s long-term transportation funding shortfall, and — despite a one-time increase in funding for the Metropolitan Council’s transit operations that was amended on in conference committee — that it would harm bus and rail service in the state’s most populated region.

“It’s a shift, it’s a raid,” said Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko). “Call it whatever you want, you’re swiping it from the General Fund.”

 

Transit changes

When first passed off the House Floor, HF861 would have leveled a drastic cut of state support to metro area transit that Metropolitan Council officials said would have meant deep reductions in bus and rail service.

The amended bill now includes a one-time, $50 million two-year increase in funding to the agency for debt reduction in an effort to win the governor’s support.

Even with restored funding for current light rail operations, in addition to the funds for debt reduction, Rep. Cheryl Youakim (DFL-Hopkins) said the transit agency’s shortfall would continue to grow. That, she said, would hurt many in the metro area who rely on the bus and train to commute to work, school and elsewhere.

“We see a lack of funding for Metro Transit that is glaring,” she said, and in later years “becomes blinding.”

The governor and DFLers have proposed an increase in the gas tax that they say will provide a long-term, dedicated surge in dollars for road and bridge construction. They have also pitched an increase in a metro area transit-dedicated sales tax to help pay for the expansion of the region’s transit system.

Republicans criticized that approach as more of the same.

“We’re hearing nothing from the DFL today,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington). “Same old lines, same old liberals, same old excuses, same old Democrats.”  

Other changes to the bill made in conference committee include:

  • the elimination of language that would require legislative approval of all future light rail projects;
  • removal of policy provisions that would have eliminated the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a five-county transit funding coalition;
  • elimination of a proposed fare box recovery mandate that would have required Metro Transit to cover far more of its operating costs through fares collected from passengers; and
  • the removal of a proposed cap on liability for freight rail operators running coterminous to a light rail line.

The bill also includes a potential change to policy provisions that would restructure the membership of the Metropolitan Council to allow the governor to continue appointing the board chair.

The remaining members would elected officials from each metropolitan county, local elected officials appointed to the council, the commissioner of transportation or their designee, and representatives of freight transportation, public transit and non-motorized transportation. 

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