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CTIB digs into details of possible breakup

If the Counties Transit Improvement Board dissolved, could the region’s transit goals still be accomplished without the region’s biggest transit funder?

The answer was mostly yes Wednesday during a special meeting in Ramsey County’s Plato Building at 90 Plato Blvd. W. in St. Paul. The powerful joint powers board awards millions of dollars annually to transit projects in the metropolitan area, but some counties would fare worse than others if the board disbanded.

The board includes representatives from Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington, Anoka and Dakota counties. CTIB faces uncertain long-term financial outlook in the wake of one of its members, Dakota County, opting out of the group, and another, Anoka County, also considering an exit.

If the group disbands, Ramsey County, which has several large projects in the works, would barely stay in the black for many years to come, according to projections shown to the board Wednesday by a public sector advising company, Springsted Inc.

Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner who is also on the CTIB, told members that was a problem for him.

“We aren’t going to just take one for the team here,” he said. “For us to participate, we’ve got to have a path to get above the negative.”

The projections assume that each county is also covering the state’s traditional 10 percent share of capital costs in transit projects. That’s an important part of the equation because the state has been the last to commit to transit funding in recent years, said Peter McLaughlin, CTIB chair and a Hennepin County commissioner.

“We have a state share problem,” he said. “What we are trying to solve for is that problem.”

If the board dissolves, Hennepin, Dakota, Anoka and Washington counties would each see their transportation fund balances rise significantly over the next 30 years as each county focuses financial resources only on projects within its boundaries and potentially implements a higher tax than it can currently. The counties would share costs on projects that cross county lines.

Currently, the five counties collect a quarter-cent sales tax to contribute to the joint powers board. If the board disbands, each county could vote to raise that tax up to a half-cent without state approval.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties would need to implement a tax increase in order to stay in the black due to the large transit projects the two counties currently have in the works, including two light rail transit lines in Hennepin County and three projects in the early planning stages that would all run at least partially through Ramsey County.

In 2018, the board estimates that Hennepin County would collect about $135.5 million in sales tax with the increase, while Ramsey would collect about $41.2 million.

CTIB was created by the state Legislature in 2008 to allow the counties to work together to build a regional transit system. In that time, the board has paid out or approved grants for to almost $1 billion, which includes both capital and operating costs for transit.

In order to fully disband, every county must agree to cancel the joint agreement the board has with the Metropolitan Council. Board members won’t likely vote on the dissolution until next month.

If each county agrees to leave CTIB, the county boards would need to take action individually to enact sales taxes for transit. The soonest the counties would take over would be July 1.

CTIB would use the money currently in its coffers to pay off outstanding debt and fulfill its 2017 transit operating funding agreements. It could also potentially pay 75 percent of its capital funding agreements for next year.

The individual counties would take over funding those agreements once CTIB runs out of money, although some on the board suggested simply paying off debt and distributing the rest of the money to the counties to award.

Regardless of how those details play out, CTIB members Wednesday said the important thing was to show stability in the region’s transit funding and overall vision as local planners look to the federal government to cover more than a billion dollars for transit projects in the coming years.

“The purpose of this is to complete the vision,” said Mary Richardson, administrator for the CTIB. “The purpose is not to throw up our hands and admit defeat.”

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