Legislative leaders say they can see a comprehensive transportation bill on the horizon — one that includes funding for transit as well as state and county highways and local roads.
But despite lawmakers’ positive noises, the Capitol remains haunted by years of stymied deals on transportation funding.
Among those hoping for changes soon are transit planners looking to the state for millions of dollars to fund two light rail transit and multiple bus rapid transit projects currently in the pipeline.
Without a state funding commitment during the 2016 legislative session, several transit lines may be in jeopardy, including the planned Southwest and Bottineau LRT lines, said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin at a Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce forum Friday.
“What’s happening is that we now have multiple lines that are bumping up against this 10 percent state share simultaneously,” McLaughlin said. “All of these projects are going to grind to a halt if we don’t solve this problem.”
McLaughlin and Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck advocated Friday for a half-cent metro-area sales tax increase to fund transit improvements and build-outs.
Glass more than half full
Meanwhile, two key players at the Legislature — Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing — signaled last month they see room for compromise on transportation. And in interviews Tuesday, they continued to sound like partners who are very much on speaking terms, if not completely in sync on the chances they give a bill next session.
“If I were to peg it on a scale of 0 to 100, I’m feeling about 65 percent positive,” said Dibble, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. “I’m above the below-50 percent pessimism I felt at the end of the session. … And the reason for that is I continue to have positive communications with Chair Kelly.”
But a transportation bill was probably always going to require two years, said Kelly, chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. He is more optimistic about the likelihood of a deal: “I would say it is as close to 100 as we could get. … Sen. Dibble and I have had very good conversations.”
A starting point for a re-established conference committee, both agreed, is where they left off on transportation last session. Dibble still likes the comprehensive bill the Senate passed. In Kelly’s view, “the question right away is going to go right to funding. Finding dedicated funding for the long term — that was our sticking point last year.”
The remainder of the interim, before the 2016 session starts on March 8, is a crucial period. Dibble wants to get “a deal in concept ironed out. That’s what I hope, because once we get into session, time is pretty short.” With broad agreement about the need for investment in infrastructure, he said, “clearly what we have in front of us is a political problem and a problem of will” — a reference to House Republicans “holding out for some other major things that they want.”
Kelly demurred about House demands but said “it’s very clear through the process that a gas tax is not in the mix. I’m hoping that we do not have to go back because we don’t have time to do that.”
A new wrinkle came with MnDOT’s release last week of its latest Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MnSHIP) tallying future needs, with a new estimated shortfall through 2037 of $16.3 billion that represents a jump of more than $4 billion from previous estimates. Kelly said he wasn’t eager to engage on that increase, while Dibble said he needed time to study the report.
A transportation bill is almost a once-in-a-generation undertaking, in Dibble’s view. “We’re not going to do a bill that’s so small that it’s not even worth doing. Because we’re not going to get back into this discussion for another 10 to 15 years,” he said. “That’s the nature of transportation, taking a step forward … then it takes 20 years to gather your steam again.”
Chamber support for transit
“We in the business community feel that [legislators] made good progress in focusing and narrowing the debate on the nature of the investment in the 2015 session,” said Bill Blazar, senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “So they’ve got a good basis for concluding the work in 2016, and that’s our expectation — that they’ll get it done.”
Though the state chamber, an integral player in passing the 2008 state transportation bill, backs a plan to reallocate existing tax funds rather than generate new money for roads and bridges improvements, the group is open to discussion about transit-improvement funding, Blazar said.
“We know and support that transit is going to be part of this transportation finance bill,” Blazar said. “I think where there is work to do is where to get the money for transit … we’re still working through the issue and trying to figure out the best way to pay for transit.”
A metro sales tax solution?
McLaughlin, who also chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board — a joint powers board responsible for allocating millions of dollars to transit infrastructure in the metro — said he wants the state out of the funding equation for transit improvement.
A half-cent metro area sales tax increase would do that, he said.
“Some of us have had it in the back of our minds for forever because it has been so hard to get the state to contribute,” McLaughlin said of finding a way to fund projects more independently.
The tax would be especially important for upcoming projects like the planned Southwest and Bottineau LRT lines, as well as the Orange BRT line, which would run along Interstate 35W between Minneapolis and Burnsville.
Currently, each project needs a 10 percent funding commitment from the state to move forward. For Southwest LRT, scheduled to begin construction in 2017, that amounts to $135 million. The Bottineau, or Blue Line Extension, is scheduled to begin construction in 2018 and has a $1.488 billion price tag. The Orange Line, priced at $150 million, is set to begin construction in 2017.
McLaughlin declined to speculate Friday on funding alternatives if a transportation bill with the sales tax measure isn’t passed.
Duininck said he’s looking at a few options after seeing the transit sales tax measure fail in the Legislature for three years.
“We, in the past at the Legislature, have said we are kind of putting all of our eggs in this transit sales tax basket,” he said. “And then we get to the end of the session and it doesn’t [pass]. And so what you’ll see maybe a little bit more from us is us talking about there being options for funding these projects, like the bonding proposal, like a supplemental budget.”
Duininck emphasized that while he looks at other options, he is still advocating for the half-cent sales tax this session and hopes to see it pass.Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.