Is Southwest LRT going to derail the transportation bill again?

You may recall that Southwest LRT threw the session into chaos in the Senate last year—minutes before the Midnight close. That meant the transportation bill tanked and the entire state got nothing for roads or transit, all because of a slavish devotion by Metro DFLer’s to one $2 billion train that may take about 6,500 cards off the road between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.

Do not get me wrong. Minnesota does not have to have a transportation bill this year. Just like last year, there is tax and bonding money in the pipeline so a lot of things can get handled anyway. But we have not had a bill in years and the roads I drive on are worthy of the third world.

In a counterpoint to the Star Tribune Editorial Board this weekend (Here’s a path to a transportation bill, May 6), Bob “Again” Carney, Jr. offered some pretty good ideas and observations. Bob’s name used to throw me off but I have come to appreciate his knowledge and dedication to transit in the Metro.

Carney was responding to what he called “a gloom-and-doom editorial responding to the just-released transportation conference committee bill (“Transit bill would hurt all of Minnesota,” May 4). He said, “(t)he time for debate is winding down: Minnesota needs a transportation bill.”

The Legislature is playing the same game of Chicken with Gov. Dayton but this year with a GOP majority in both houses (though only by one vote in the Senate).

Everyone knows there is pent up demand for the bill. People want roads repaired and expanded, darn it. This is not a partisan thing, it’s a 90% plus issue. Even if you drive an electric car once a week to the Wedge in Minneapolis for your organic groceries, you need roads that will not take the wheel off your Chevy Volt. Or roads that are not so congested that you end up on a first-name basis with the guy stuck in front of you.

Carney laid out a “four-part compromise plan.”

First — regular route transit service. The editorial accepts the Met Council’s claim that there is still a 10 percent shortfall. But the new bill has $150 million more for regular service than the earlier House version. That includes $30 million above the base appropriation. The Met Council also gets automatic increases in the motor vehicle sales tax — its main subsidy. With that huge swing from the House position, the GOP has already bent over backward to fund “regular” transit. But it can go two steps further.

Step one: Put the new $30 million in the first year. Step two: Reserve an additional amount of Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) money for one year. The priority is to ensure no service cuts.

But in return we need a legislative audit of the Met Council’s transportation programs. Widespread mistrust of the council’s number is an underlying problem. We need to know where all the money is going and how we can cut costs instead of service. Giving the Met Council the benefit of the doubt for one year is not a deal-breaker — if there’s a full audit and full accountability.

Second — dissolving the CTIB. This idea came from Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, the CTIB chair. The new bill is a kind of mandated “divorce settlement” — it divides 100 percent of available assets among the counties that paid that money in — a fact the editorial omits. As noted, some of this money should be reserved to ensure no service cuts. But let’s also give the counties a cost-control incentive: Require that if some or all of that reserved money isn’t needed, it will also be returned to the counties. Finally, let’s delay the legislative “divorce settlement” for one year — let the CTIB counties work out their own terms. If they can’t, we’ll do it for them.

Please note that Peter McLaughlin is the father of all things LRT in the Metro. This is his life’s work.

Third — Met Council governance. The new bill reforms the council, but Gov. Dayton will object — he appoints the council and the members serve at his pleasure. This issue is negotiable — partly because if Minnesota elects a Republican governor and House next year, all the proposed reforms will happen.

Fourth and finally — the bill requires explicit legislative approval for any new or extended light-rail line and prohibits certificates of participation — a kind of “fake bond” the Met Council plans to use for Southwest LRT. Frankly, these provisions are nonnegotiable. The Republicans — especially in the House — have simply had it with LRT boosters steamrolling Minnesota toward billions in giant construction boondoggles with no legislative say in the matter.

If there is no deal, this will be why.

The editorial claims stopping light rail “would do real and lasting harm to the Twin Cities’ ability to develop a modern mass transit system, which in turn would damage the economic vitality of the entire state.”

Nope. Not building an obsolete 19th-century system at 22nd-century prices will free up billions of dollars to build a 21st-century system at market prices. Let’s get to work on that.

Bob, you can say that Again!