Minnesota governor pushes for transit tax increase

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Photo: Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Photo: Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton hopes to double the Twin Cities metropolitan area transit tax to a half of a percent with a bill lawmakers are announcing Thursday.

The tax is applied to retail sales in five counties near St. Paul and Minneapolis. It could raise hundreds of millions of dollars towards making it easier to get around the region.

The current tax of a quarter of a percent has raised approximately $400 million since July 2008, said Hilary Reeves, communications director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Transit for Livable Communities. The money is used to improve commuter rail, bus rapid transit and light rail.

Most Minnesotans appear on board. In a January poll, 91 percent of voters agreed that transportation is a good investment for the state, regardless of whether they use it regularly.

The original transit tax included Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties. Scott and Carver counties rejected it. Dayton proposes that they get on-board this time around.

Nationwide, transit systems are “moving a lot faster than we are, so that’s a competitive issue, which the business community here has gotten behind,” Reeves said. But she doesn’t think the current tax is enough to create what she calls a 21st-century transportation system.

“We have a vision but we don’t have funding for it,” Reeves said. “The region has now seen what we can do … [The 2008 tax] gave us a sense of what’s possible, but did not get us the whole way.”

Reeves would like expansion of the bus system — more routes, longer service hours and increased frequencies. She’s also striving for improved bicycle and pedestrian lanes, and more accommodations for riders with disabilities. More than 100 million public transportation rides are taken annually statewide, according to the Minnesota Department of Education 2011 Transit Report.

“There are a lot of people for whom cities need to work,” Reeves said. “If cities work, we preserve more open space for other species to have room as well. It’s a good way to make things work affordably and to provide options … There’s a lot of energy from the environmental community, and a lot of attention to the ways the transportation sector affects climate change and global warming.”

Dayton’s proposal has support from multiple state representatives. However, the change is far from official.

“[The budget] still has many details to be worked out and hearings to go through,” said Steve Gershone, principal aide for Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat. Hennepin contains the includes the state capital, Minneapolis. “While it’s an immensely positive step, there are still many details to determine on who will control the new revenue and how it will be distributed.”

Peter McLaughlin, chair of the Counties Transit Improvement Board and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, seconds the enthusiasm.

“This new investment will allow for a quicker build-out of our regional transit system, including both light rail and bus rapid transit, as well as stabilization and growth in core bus services,” McLaughlin said in a press release. “We are competing with our peers to attract new businesses and talent to Minnesota … When combined with the expansion of the sales tax base and the inclusion of Scott and Carver counties, the governor’s budget proposal represents a huge leap forward.”

The Minnesota Department of Revenue collects and administers the tax. The Counties Transit Improvement Board then disperses the funds throughout transportation projects in the metropolitan area. The board was formed in 2008 and collaborates with the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency serving the Twin Cities area. It has already invested nearly half a billion dollars in the transportation systems, and that amount has been matched in federal funds. 

The bill will be carried over for possible inclusion in the main transportation bill. The House and Senate are expected to hold hearings on the bill the week of March 18.

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