June 2017

Death of a Twin Cities Transit Board Means Counties Control their Own Funding

By Janet Moore, Star Tribune


A semi-obscure board that in eight years has raised close to $1 billion for transit in the metro area voted Wednesday to dissolve itself.

As of Oct. 1, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) will no longer exist, but a slightly different way of funding likely will raise even more money for expensive drawing-board projects that include new light rail and bus-rapid transit lines to the northern and southwestern suburbs and along some of the busiest Twin Cities freeways.

After much drama over the past year, the board voted unanimously Wednesday to disband, offering little comment in the process. “We were on the verge of the whole thing blowing up, but now we’re making a giant leap forward,” said CTIB Chairman Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner.

CTIB was formed in 2008 as a way for Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and Washington counties to levy a quarter-cent tax as well as a $20 fee for new car sales to help build and operate regional transit. The thinking was that a regional approach would work best, rather than each county trying to tackle transit projects on their own.

Transit projects in the works will have a more assured funding stream, after state lawmakers balked at pitching in. They include Southwest and Bottineau Blue Line light-rail, connecting downtown Minneapolis to the suburbs; the Orange Line bus-rapid transit line along car-clogged Interstate 35W south of the metro; and the Gateway Gold line linking Union Depot in St. Paul to Woodbury on a highway dedicated solely to souped-up BRT buses.

Going forward, Hennepin County will bear the financial burden of building many of those projects. Last week Hennepin and Ramsey counties raised their transit sales tax to a half cent. The remaining CTIB counties will stay at a quarter cent. Critics see CTIB’s demise as a “death of regionalism,” where counties sacrifice for the public good of the whole — in this case a metro-wide transit system that would heavily serve Hennepin County.

But Matt Look, a CTIB member and an Anoka County commissioner, disagrees. “Regionalism is a nice thing to say, but every [CTIB] county had its own project. Everyone was being parochial,” he said. That was the case last June, when the Dakota County Board decided CTIB was no longer a good deal and announced its departure by 2019. Like a game of Jenga, that was the beginning of the end.

The declaration chafed other CTIB members, some of whom felt betrayed. But in the 2015 legislative session, some lawmakers balked at paying for light-rail projects, a situation that was exacerbated when the GOP took control of the Legislature in 2016 and it became clear that state money would not be in the cards for the Southwest and Bottineau lines.

Late last year, CTIB first threatened to self-destruct, freeing counties to tax themselves for transit. Dakota County agreed earlier this week to reimpose a quarter-cent tax, as did Anoka and Washington counties. Hennepin and Ramsey counties will move to a half-cent tax on Oct. 1.

Reprinted from the the Star Tribune, June 21 edition.


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