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State Slow on Mass Transit

July 11, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Minnesotans are voting with their feet and their dollars for mass transit, pushing commuter bus and train travel across the entire state to record levels. Unfortunately, the state is doing little to keep pace with the public's increasing desire for alternatives to the family car and $3-a-gallon-plus gasoline.

Transit patronage is on the rise both in the Twin Cities and outstate. For example, ridership on the Hiawatha light rail line grew 18.6 percent last year, boosting Metro Transit to a 22-year high of 73.8 million trips. And Greater Minnesota's far-flung public transit services logged 350,000 more trips in 2005 than the year before.

Rural transit minibuses are "probably more critical than in the metro," says Nobles County Engineer Steve Schnieder, because many outstate residents have no other practical way to get to distant jobs, pharmacies and grocery stores. "The alternative is to walk 8 or 10 miles," he said.

Even confirmed road warriors like the idea of more transit services, if only in the hope of luring other drivers out of their way on Twin Cities freeways now rated the nation's second most congested.

Count state government among mass transit's fans, too . sort of. It has an ambitious plan to open no less than eight new dedicated transit routes - via rail or rapid busways - radiating from Minneapolis and St. Paul by 2030.

The catch is that the state hasn't funded seven of them, or even proposed specific financing to begin seriously planning them.

Legislative attempts to loosen the state purse strings for those purposes have been repeatedly vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This year alone he nixed a capital investment bill with planning money for four transit lines and then a transportation finance bill that would have funded transit operations and construction and also greatly accelerated road-building.

Pawlenty objected to the bills as too much of a strain on taxpayers. But his own Metropolitan Council has reported that the Twin Cities' per capita transit spending lags the average of peer regions such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh by up to 48 percent. The council also said that building and operating its planned new transit corridors "will require new revenues . from a new and yet unidentified revenue source."

State Rep. Bernie Lieder, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, is intent on finding that source in the 2008 legislative session. At age 84, the DFLer from Crookston has witnessed with dismay the state's nearly 20-year stalemate on transportation funding, but he isn't giving up.

"I think we'll get a transportation bill through next year," he said this week. "And it's got to be a good one because if you pass it you can't get another one for a long time."

The end of Pawlenty's four-year plan of borrowing and advanced federal funds to build major highways will increase pressure for a new funding bill, Lieder said. It will balance the needs of roads and transit, Twin Cities and outstate, state highways and local thoroughfares, he said.

Objections to a proposed Twin Cities sales tax for roads and transit killed the 2007 bill, Lieder said. He won't go there again for the elusive new revenue source, he said. "I've got an idea," he said, declining to elaborate until later. "I think it will take care of it pretty well."

The costs of inaction on Minnesota's economy and quality of life are too great to keep putting off building a 21st century transit system. It's vital for the Legislature and governor to find a way to get the state moving again.


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