ST.PAUL, Minn. - It’s easy to find critics of mass transit among Republican lawmakers at the Capitol.
“I believe additional transit is not needed,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa and a member of the House Transportation Committee. “The need is in roads and bridges.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt routinely expresses a similar sentiment: that the Legislature should focus on new road and bridge spending and not on buses and trains.
But this opposition to transit in the House majority is about to face a test: The GOP’s traditional allies in the business community are joining DFLers in the push to include transit in a transportation funding package.
“There’s … an emerging and strong argument about transit being a part of the mobility equation,” said Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, a major supporter of Republicans who led the fight against Democratic-Farmer-Labor proposals to fund road and bridge work with a gas tax increase. “Transit needs to be part of that equation.”
Will business leader arguments bring more Republicans on board transit funding? It’s a question that could impact whether lawmakers manage to pass a transportation package this year that both parties agree needs to happen. Transit is one of the two big issues standing between lawmakers and a bipartisan agreement - along with the more publicized debate about how to pay for transportation improvements.
State Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican transportation committee chair who’s negotiating a final package, believes groups like the chamber will help “educate” Republicans about “what that transit piece means and how that ties into the total comprehensive transportation package.”
“Businesses like that don’t come out for that just for no reason,” Kelly, of Red Wing, said. “They have their economic reasons, both for transportation of their employees and also economic development.”
Drazkowski isn’t so sure. He predicted Republicans would pay attention to anti-transit constituents in their districts, not the Chamber and metro-based businesses. Many, although perhaps not a majority, of his colleagues share that view, he said.
CRITICISM: COSTS, NECESSITY AND UNPOPULARITY
Many of the arguments Republicans make about transit projects come down to their cost to build and the ongoing operational subsidies they require.
“We operate at a deficit for (transit systems), and that’s hard for someone who doesn’t use that type of system at all, and has no need for it in their type of district, to grasp that spending level,” Kelly said.
Daudt, R-Stanford Township, highlighted that in his criticism of the Southwest Light Rail project, a proposed line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie with a total cost in excess of $1.5 billion.
“If you asked Minnesotans, ‘Hey, do you want us to spend $136 million on (Southwest Light Rail) or on these roads and bridges?’, you probably would get 90 percent of the people who would say, ‘I want it spent on those roads and those bridges,’ “ Daudt said, referring to the share of the project the state of Minnesota must put up this year if Southwest Light Rail is to advance.
Critics say any benefit provided by mass transit projects - especially trains - falls far short of that cost. Others from rural districts say constituents don’t see the need to spend money on metro-area transit.
BUSINESS GROUPS SEE DUAL BENEFIT TO TRANSIT
Business groups give two general reasons for supporting transit funding. One is nakedly political: Adding transit to a transportation package brings with it votes from urban DFLers and thus increases the odds of passing road and bridge funding that helps businesses far away from the nearest bus stop.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, the Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee, put it bluntly in February: “To pass a bill, we’re going to have to support Metro Transit, period.”
Transit skeptics may test that. Daudt suggested voters would blame DFLers if their insistence on transit funding leads them to reject a road-and-bridge-only bill.
“If we leave here without accomplishing at least that, which we all agree on, it’s shame on anybody who wants to hold that hostage to try to get money for some project that doesn’t have broad public support or votes to pass in the House, “ Daudt said.
But businesses also say spending money on transit is good for its own sake, not just as a political tool.
“When you’re stuck in traffic, you’re not doing your job. You can’t do your job,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, before the session started.
A group called 2020 Partners, which includes Minnesota’s professional sports teams, Target and other downtown Minneapolis-based businesses, recently wrote a letter to Dayton, Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, saying that “many of our business investments are predicated on transit.” They urged completion of new light rail lines stretching from downtown Minneapolis to the northwest and southwest suburbs.
Loon said employee preferences also matter.
“We’re finding more and more individuals in Minnesota that wish to not have a car, that wish to rely on transit,” he said.
HOW TO PAY FOR TRANSIT STILL UNSETTLED
Though the Chamber is putting its muscle behind spending money on mass transit, it’s not publicly saying where that money should come from or what types of transit it should be spent on.
“We’re not going to get involved in the fine detail of the type of mode or the route of that system,” Loon said.
The primary plan on the table to fund Metro Transit comes from Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL lawmakers and the Met Council: a half-cent sales tax increase for the seven-county metro region.
That could raise $280 million per year to fund both existing operations and new bus and rail lines.
But details remain uncertain. Lawmakers could impose the tax only ON some counties in the metro, give counties the ability to opt out of the tax or require an opt-in from voters or officials.
Another possibility is to require policy changes at the Met Council in exchange for giving it more money.
Loon said the Chamber doesn’t have a position on a sales tax increase to fund transit - a contrast to its firm opposition to a gas tax increase. If a sales tax is adopted, Loon said, the Chamber would like it tied to Met Council changes.
The transit question could be decided in the next several weeks. Kelly said many lawmakers have been preoccupied with other issues in the first month of the legislative session and haven’t begun debating transportation in earnest. That, he said, will now change as the session nears its midway point.
“We believe the pieces are in place to develop a bill that can gather the broad swathe of votes from both sides of the aisle,” Loon said. “We have a few weeks … We’re optimistic that a good bill can be produced that will provide comprehensive support for the infrastructure investments we’re seeking.”
Transportation and transit by the numbers:
142,914: Miles of road in Minnesota
58,333: Miles of paved road in Minnesota
293,589: Lane-miles of road in Minnesota
7.5 percent: Share of Minnesota's roads currently in "poor" condition
$167,000: Typical cost per lane-mile for an asphalt resurface
$2.2 million: Typical cost to fully reconstruct an urban road
$860 million: Money raised in 2013 by Minnesota's 28.6 cent-per-gallon gas tax
$720 million: Money from the federal government in 2013 for Minnesota roads
12 percent: Share of state's road-miles in seven-county metro
47 percent: Share of the state's traffic in seven-county metro
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.