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Transportation bill leaves road, transit advocates disappointed

The $5.5 billion “lights on” transportation funding package for the next biennium is a far cry from the long-term funding solution advocates and business leaders fought for this legislative session.

Without compromise on a long-term package, the Minnesota House and Senate on Monday passed a scaled back transportation funding and policy bill that largely maintains the status quo. Still, there’s a new $5 million investment in rail safety, $5 million in greater Minnesota transit and $12.5 million in aid for the state’s smallest cities. But overall, the state’s new transportation spending of $48 million is not much higher than the $5.47 billion budget for the current biennium.

Move MN, a coalition of more than 200 labor groups, organizations, businesses and local governments, called attention Tuesday to the state’s lack of progress with a giant roll of duct tape it planned to truck around the state.

While lawmakers from both parties and chambers agreed there was a transportation funding problem and made it a priority this year, they couldn’t agree on a funding source, said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a member of the MoveMN coalition.

“Obviously, we are very disappointed,” Donahoe said. “After all the promises and discussion that 2015 was going to be the year for transportation, we ended the session without an agreement on a long-term plan.”

The governor, the Senate and the House entered the session promising to find a transportation funding solution.

The governor and Senate Democrats planned to fund nearly $11 billion in transportation and transit fixes with a new gas tax at the wholesale level and an increase in the metro area sales tax for transit. Meanwhile, House Republicans proposed raising nearly $7 billion over 10 years through appropriating existing transportation-related revenue and using some of the state’s budget surplus.

The gas tax increase was the major sticking point in the transportation debate, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said in a news conference late Monday.

“It really floundered over this commitment the majority and the governor had to raising the gas tax, and I think that’s a debate that’s going to continue over the interim and into the next year,” Hann said.

The 2015 effort is not all lost. Transportation leaders Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, agreed to keep the conference committee open for House File 4 so negotiations can resume on long-term transportation funding next session.

Such a move “signifies that the Legislature does not want to start from scratch in 2016,” Donahoe said.

Bentley Graves, who oversees transportation policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, noted significant progress occurred on the issue. Lawmakers started the session without even agreeing on the amount of transportation investment needed and today the targets aren’t far off, Graves said.

“Everyone is in general agreement that we need to invest additional dollars in the transportation system,” Graves said. “While it is disappointing that we didn’t get a comprehensive bill passed this session, I do think we made significant progress.”

At the same time, waiting until March 2016 to pick up the transportation debate could come at a cost for the state.

“They just upped the cost of everything we need to do by not coming to some kind of consensus,” said Todd Klingel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Problem areas will continue to deteriorate and construction costs will rise as projects get put on the back burner, he said.

By not investing in infrastructure, the state and the metropolitan region may lose out to competitors, Donahoe said. Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska all increased fuel taxes this year to pay for transportation improvements.

“When [companies] see we are not investing in our infrastructure, Minnesota is not as attractive place to do business,” she said. The state also could lose out on federal funding opportunities for transit and transportation programs.

Many of the region’s forthcoming transit lines are in “a holding pattern” without significant investment from the state, Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck said Tuesday in an interview. The budget will pay for continued operations of light rail, bus rapid transit, local buses and Dial-a-Ride services, but not for expansion.

Projects in the federal pipeline waiting for state funds include the Southwest Light Rail Transit line to Eden Prairie, the Gateway bus rapid transit line to Woodbury and the Orange Line BRT along Interstate 35W to Burnsville. The funding deadlines for those projects are still a ways off, but Duininck said project planners aren’t able to show federal partners that progress is being made toward the local funding commitment.

Duininck, like many other transportation advocates, was disappointed that the result was a “lights on” package at a time when the Met Council is trying to build out the transit system.

“We are at a really critical time when it comes to our transit service,” he said. “Are we going to step forward and make the investment we need or keep plodding along here?”

The big question going forward, Klingel said, is how to pass a transportation package when none of the main players will change by the next session.

“Somebody’s gotta get enlightened between now and then,” he said.

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