The House staked out its position on one of the 2015 session’s key issues late Tuesday, passing an omnibus transportation policy and finance bill that focuses on fixing Minnesota’s roads and bridges with more than $6 billion in proposed spending over the next two years, but that would place limits on new mass transit projects.
Passed 73-59, HF4 would rely on existing vehicle-related sales taxes to help provide $6.6 billion for the state’s transportation system in the 2016-17 biennium, increase funding for road work in the state’s smallest cities and boost suburban and Greater Minnesota transit agencies.
The package’s passage followed a more than 7-hour floor debate that highlighted stark differences of opinion in how to solve what legislative leaders have agreed publicly is a multi-billion dollar shortfall in funding for badly-needed maintenance on Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure.
The bill now goes to the Senate. It has no direct companion.
Sponsored by Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Red Wing), the bill prioritizes roads and bridges — at the expense of critical transit needs, its critics say — proposing to utilize General Fund dollars collected through taxes on auto parts, vehicle rentals and leases to inject more than $450 million in new funding for roads and rural transit without new taxes.
It is a plan miles apart from the Senate’s proposed transportation budget. That proposal would introduce a new wholesale fuel tax and expand an existing metro area sales tax for use on transit projects to raise $11 billion in new transportation funding.
HF4 recognizes that further tax increases are not the answer — and Minnesotans agree with us,” Kelly said.
Republicans defended the legislation — part of a plan they say will raise an extra $7 billion over the next decade — as a stable way to infuse new funds into the state’s transportation budget using existing state dollars. House DFLers have criticized it as “shifts and gimmicks” that takes from other General Fund priorities to fund transportation.
The package includes measures that would increase funding to the Corridors of Commerce program aimed at busy commercial routes in Greater Minnesota, funnel aid to the state’s smallest cities that aren’t eligible for state highway aid, and transfer $228 million of the state’s budget surplus from the General Fund for local highway and Greater Minnesota transit projects.
Transit loses out?
No new significant dollars for metro area mass transit are included in the legislation. Instead, it includes language that would phase out roughly $20 million in General Fund appropriations to the Metropolitan Council for transit operations and maintenance; eliminate a half-million dollar annual base appropriation from the General Fund to the Department of Transportation for commuter and passenger rail; and require legislative approval of planning for future transit lines. The bill would also prevent state funding from being used on Metro Transit operations.
Metropolitan Council officials have said HF4 would force deep cuts in regular bus service over the next two years.
Republican members on the House Floor Tuesday defended the priorities laid out in the bill, saying roads and bridges are Minnesotans’ prime concerns. But House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) called the plan a bill that “does not serve the whole state.”
“If we don’t get a transportation bill that is comprehensive … if we do that this time, this legislative session will be a failure,” he said. “And we are so far away from accomplishing that.”
Rail safety push
HF4 would also provide $5 million to make safety fixes at busy oil train crossings across the state. House members rejected a proposed amendment offered by Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) that would have assessed the state’s major rail carriers up to $32.5 million per year to help fund those improvements. The proposed funding is not nearly enough, Hornstein said, citing a MnDOT study that found more than $300 million of grade separation improvements at dangerous rail-road intersections are needed across the state.
“This bill does not come close to addressing our oil transportation needs and issues,” he said. “We can do better than this.”
Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin) represents a district that includes two of the dangerous crossings identified in the MnDOT report. He said he agreed the increase in oil trains originating in western North Dakota presented a real issue for the state. Assessments on rail carriers, however, are “not the way to do this.”
The House adopted a pair of amendments from more than a dozen offered during Tuesday’s debate.
One would make front license plates optional on some vehicles, including those with collector’s and street rod licenses. Another, offered by Kelly, would make $266,000 per year in grant funding available to metropolitan planning organizations and $900,000 per year for transportation studies in Greater Minnesota to determine critical concerns.