A group of business leaders, elected officials and former state legislators will try to propose a long-term transit funding solution that decision-makers in both political parties can agree on – a major undertaking in Minnesota.
State leaders haven’t passed a comprehensive transportation bill since 2008, though other grassroots groups have lobbied repeatedly for a transit funding solution in recent years.
But now is the time, said Peter Bell, a former Metropolitan Council chair who will head the group convened by the St. Paul-based Citizens League.
“There’s a bit of serendipity always at work,” said Bell, who led the Met Council from 2003 to 2011 amid planning and building the Green Line light rail transit project and opening the Blue Line LRT. “The inability to agree on [transit] has had ripple effects in other areas, and I think that makes a number of people receptive to taking a fresh look.”
Disagreements over transit – specifically the controversial Southwest light rail transit project – derailed legislators in 2016 from passing a comprehensive transportation bill and a bonding bill. Leaders agreed that a transportation bill was needed and proposed changes to the gas tax, sales tax and using general fund dollars to complete transportation projects, but they couldn’t agree on the specifics.
State leaders also couldn’t get past their differences to come together for a special session over the summer to fund important state projects, even those unrelated to transit.
The 21 people on the bipartisan committee won’t talk about individual transit projects but will write a long-term transit funding proposal by February 2017, which they hope legislators will adopt.
Former House members who will serve on the committee include Republicans Michael Beard of Shakopee, William Schreiber of Brooklyn Park and Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville. Ann Lenczewski, a former DFL representative from Bloomington who chaired the House’s Tax Committee, is vice chair of the transit committee. Beard was a Republican lead on the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.
No active state legislators are on the committee.
Current elected county and city officials are also on the roster. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who also chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, is among those officials.
CTIB collects and spends millions of dollars on transit for the seven-county metro area every year through a quarter-cent sales tax from Dakota, Washington, Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties.
Business leaders on the Citizens League committee include Jason Grev, director of government relations at Ecolab, and Bill Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
“Our job, at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, is to bring that statewide perspective,” Blazar said Wednesday. “I think transit is an issue, not just in the Twin Cities, but how it is managed and how it is financed is really a statewide issue.”
Having a broad range of interests on the committee, from businesses to city council members to former lawmakers, makes the group poised to make suggestions that will be palatable to an array of decision-makers, Bell said.
That will be especially important in the coming session, when regional planners are worried about tensions from the past year.
Local leaders last month voted to use a patchwork of controversial funding measures, including certificates of participation, to bypass the Legislature and save the $1.8 billion Southwest LRT line linking Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Certificates of participation are somewhat similar to bonds but don’t require legislative action and tend to come with higher risk and interest rates. Met Council Chair Adam Duininck repeatedly said the certificates were a bad option, but the only one left for the line.
Met Council Member Steven Chavez last month approved using the certificates for the Southwest project, but not before echoing the concerns regional planners have raised about how legislators will interpret the move.
“We’re going to be in a position with the Legislature, I think, to look at this action as a precedent,” he said. “It may be more difficult down the road to go back to the Legislature for a handshake.”
Sean Kershaw, executive director at Citizens League, acknowledged the frustration among some state leaders.
“The decisions that were made to accomplish that goal will have repercussions, and we will take that into account,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
All transit funding options are on the table with the new committee, Bell said. The group plans to focus on educating people on how transit is funded and to increase transparency in that process. They’ll vet a list of scenarios for a long-term solution before presenting state leaders with a proposal.
“Everyone realizes that there are some challenges with our current transit funding structure,” Bell said. “But the real question will be: Can we come up with something that has fewer challenges?”
Others serving on the committee:
- Abou Amara, director of public policy at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change
- Patrick Born, former Met Council regional administrator and current Citizens League board member
- James Erkel, attorney and director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
- Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition and member of the Met Council Transportation Advisory Board
- Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens
- Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden
- Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens
- Scott McBride, transportation district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation
- Jim McDonough, Ramsey County commissioner and former chair of Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority
- Kenya McKnight, president of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance and member of the Transportation Advisory Board
- Vayong Moua, director of health equity advocacy at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota
- Andrew Richter, organizer for Community Solutions MN, former city of Crystal planning commission member
- Patty Thorsen, member of the Met Council Transportation Accessibility Advisory Committee
- With Met Council vote, Southwest LRT funding gap is filled
- No special session: Talks break down over Southwest light rail
- Southwest LRT stakeholders in limbo