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Hausman’s transit reform bill: "All my friends hate me now"

Here are three things you need to know about HF1535, Rep. Alice Hausman‘s (DFL-St. Paul) (pictured) bill to remake Minnesota’s public transit system: 1) It would fundamentally change the politics and the policymaking thrust of public transit in Minnesota by investing metro and statewide public transit authority in a single state agency; 2) it’s going nowhere this session; and 3) Hausman knows that and nonetheless relishes the start of what she knows will be a long fight.

"Sometimes you have to introduce a bill just to start the conversation moving forward," Hausman tells PIM. "So I lobbed the grenade. What I hope the bill will do is to force people to sit down at the table together in the interim [following this year’s legislative session]."

The main reason the measure is so politically fraught is that it seeks to take metro-area transit authority away from the powerful and long-entrenched Metropolitan Council. Hausman says the present concentration of transit dollars and planning power in the Met Council and the Counties Transit Improved Board (CTIB) creates inefficiencies and unwisely forces the whole state to hew to a long-range rail transit policy dictated by a handful of metro entities–particularly Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis.

By way of example, she pulls out a map showing CTIB’s recommendations for a central metro rail transit hub. All the lines are routed to end in a hub near the new Twins stadium in Minneapolis, she notes, even though this requires a serious jog to the south and west of the routes.

Hausman’s proposal would transfer authority over metro-area transit away from those metro bodies, and would likewise remove the state office of transit from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The two would be combined in a new statewide agency run by a council of governments. "If the whole state’s [transit systems are] going to work, and the cities around the state are going to be connected," she says, "then ultimately we have to make sense of how every mode [bus, rail, etc.] and every corridor work together. You can’t just plan a system for the metro without respect to the rest of the state. Somebody had better be taking a statewide view."

Besides hampering a more coordinated statewide approach, reckons Hausman, the current metro transit bureaucracy has a couple of other basic problems. First, it’s outlived its usefulness. "This is an organization that dates to the ’60s," she notes. "Now we no longer have a seven-county metro area, but we still have a planning agency that is responsible for seven counties and operating for seven counties. And we never get rid of things. We’ve just layered on more bureaucracy from the ’60s on."

The result, she claims, is not only greater inefficiency but greater inequity. Hausman cheerfully illustrates her critique with a barrage of examples. "For metro transit local," she offers, "the subsidy in 2006 came to $1.89 per passenger. But if you look at the contracted express routes, the subsidies ranged from $2.50 for Maple Grove to $17.20 for Prior Lake and $17.02 for Shakopee."

Further inequities result from the woefully outdated boundaries of the metro-area transit taxing district, Hausman adds: "Rosemount, for instance, has been in the transit taxing district forever. They don’t have a park-and-ride facility. But Lakeville, which is outside the taxing district, just negotiated express [bus] service and a park-and-ride with the Met Council."

The Met Council’s second major flaw is its reflexive political allegiance to the governor’s office, which appoints its members. During the Pawlenty administration, that has meant "a transit agency that doesn’t advocate for transit," in the words of Hausman’s colleague Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis). "I totally agree with Frank on that," says Hausman. "If you’re going to have a coherent approach, it can’t be subject to the whims of whoever is sitting in the governor’s office at the moment."

But Hornstein, who chairs the House Transportation and Transit Policy and Oversight Division, does not sound particularly sold on the bill himself. Asked the other day what he thought of HF1535, Hornstein seemed to give it a diplomatic brush-off: "It’s one of a number of bills that point to a dire need for reform to stop the politicization of the Met Council by the executive branch." As PIM wrote previously, Hornstein has introduced a Met Council reform bill of his own that would take appointment power away from the governor in favor of a council of governments model. That bill, like Hausman’s, is expected to fall by the wayside this year.

Even though her reform bill has proven to be a dead letter for the time being, Hausman says it’s elicited a furious backlash. "It’s been very controversial," she says, "and all my friends hate me now. One friend who helped me put this together feels so threatened he’s taken a backseat now.

"People wonder why we never really reform stuff. Whoever suggests [reform] is the object of the ire of all the people who’ve figured out how to make the current system work for them."

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