Quick update on transit and transportation issues at the Capitol

Revised: The end of session actions taken by Republicans are somewhat disorienting given the fact that the transportation bill coming out of the House was very good and the signals from the Senate seemed pretty good, as well. Then it went to conference committee. What came out was very different. Before the Legislature got the bill ready to send to Gov. Dayton, apparently leadership opted to anticipate what Dayton would do, and removed most if not all offending language.

As of late afternoon, the House has passed the conference bill it worked out with the Senate (and we are expecting the Senate to do the same but just do not know when that will happen).

The House has always prioritized funding for roads (without raising taxes—very good) while placing serious legislative controls on light rail expansion by the Met Council. For example, if Hennepin County commissioners want to fund LRT expansion, the House was going to require the county to go to the voters first with a referendum before raising the sales tax. That referendum language is now gone.

Right now it looks as though the Republicans are going to deliver a “roads and bikes bill” to the Governor and let Hennepin and Ramsey County do whatever they please with regard to transit (buses and trains). The state has washed its hands of LRT expansion, shifting the bill to counties without any protections for taxpayers. Met Council gets a big bump ($50 million) in funding.

In anticipation of getting its way in the session, Hennepin County has already held a hearing on raising the sales tax (to half a cent from a quarter of a cent) needed to provide local funding for SWLRT and Bottineau. The increase would raise an additional $125 million a year. Watch out Hennepin County taxpayers.

Correction: The language that counties and cities worked diligently on for years reforming Met Council governance to make it more accountable by requiring that most commissioners are elected officials appointed by counties and cities in the region, made it into the conference bill.

While we have acknowledged this as a respectable option, the Center is not too keen on the idea. Nothing short of a break-up will fix the problem of regionalism, and importantly, the reform does NOTHING to reduce the scope of the Met Council’s power. Nothing. We will have to rely on the appointed elected officials to reduce their own power. And hope they can over-power the well-entrenched Council staff (they are really in charge.) Call me skeptical.

If we get a “new and improved” Met Council, we may get stuck with it for a very long time. You can  read the details on page 107 of the conference committee report.  Since the “reform” provision goes into effect after Dayton leaves office, he just might sign it. The change in governance would put the Met Council in compliance with federal law (it has been grandfathered for years).

Oh by the way, the bill cuts the Met Council Chair’s salary to $40k–Adam Duininck is making more than Governor Dayton right now. He will be fine; his wife works for Dayton. The DFL will take care of them. the reduction is not personal or intended to be punitive. The idea is that the position will return to a part-time, not such a big deal job, under the reform.

Some other provisions worth noting: the prohibition on the Met Council using an obscure debt instrument (certificates of participation or COPs) remained in the bill and that is very good. But the reason it was needed at least immediately was to block the Met Council from using COPs to fund the state’s 10% portion of SWLRT. Now that Hennepin County can raise a ton of money, the Met Council has announced that it does not need to rely on COPs. But perhaps it will find COPs a tempting option in the future, so this language should stay. Debt, in any event, should always be subject to some public approval process. (Page 115 of conference report)

There are a number of other helpful provisions that make LRT expansion a little tougher, more accountable. Let’s see what happens to them when the bill lands on Gov. Dayton’s desk. One is so good that I am afraid to mention it (jinx).

For those of you who oppose SWLRT no matter who pays for it, here is good news:  SWLRT and Bottineau LRT are still stuck on a “do-not -fund” list at the federal level.  If this bill is signed, the local funding could in theory push the projects forward but there are still other checklist items before the project can move forward.

DOT/FTA confirmed to the Center last week that both projects are stalled in the engineering phase–even if the checklist items (local funding, agreements with freight rail) gets handled here in Minnesota.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has been firm: unless a project had full funding last October, it would not be eligible for federal funds.

Even MinnPost agrees that LRT funding at the federal level is in doubt.

That means neither project is slated to get full funding and Hennepin County taxpayers would have to underwrite the full project costs ($2 billion for SWRLT and at least $1.5 billion for Bottineau—and that is just to build the lines, then you have to operate them).

Without “free” federal funding, even the most ardent LRT fans would start asking questions like, what are we really getting for all that money?

Finally, there is a serious challenge to SWLRT in federal court. If the plaintiffs do not get summary judgment, it goes to trial this fall.

As of this writing, the bill is in the Senate, and then on its way to Gov. Dayton. Even though Dayton is kind of kooky, he has been consistent. Consistently hard to work with even when he gets most of what he says he wants. So expect a fight.