They levy $120M a year for Twin Cities transit, and now might disband
ST. PAUL — An influential but little-known metro-county coalition that raises $120 million annually for public transit voted last week to take preliminary steps toward disbanding.
Doing so would allow members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board to levy more local taxes for transit, allow each the flexibility to jump-start projects and depend less on the Legislature for funding.
Members of CTIB say state lawmakers have been in no rush to foot 10 percent of project costs for the proposed Gold Line from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury, the Bottineau Line from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, or the Southwest Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
"For line after line after line, the single biggest impediment to moving forward is the state's 10 percent share," said board chair Peter McLaughlin, who is also a Hennepin County commissioner. "That's what's holding up the Gold Line. That's what's holding up the Bottineau Line. We as counties are going to step forward, and as individual counties are going to pick up the state's 10 percent share, as well as CTIB's 30 percent share."
As members of CTIB, Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties have imposed a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax to pay for transit.
The goal since CTIB's launch in 2008 has been to award annual capital and operating grants to transit projects and boost the metro's burgeoning network of light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid-transit lines. The Metropolitan Council is represented by a voting board member, and Carver and Scott counties are non-voting members.
For CTIB, the past few years have been frustrating. The Legislature declined to fund the state's expected share of the Southwest Line, which is the planned extension of the Green Line light rail to Eden Prairie, forcing CTIB, the Met Council and Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority to fill the budget gap themselves in order to move forward.
"There was no transportation and transit bill last year," said Rafael Ortega, one of two Ramsey County commissioners on the CTIB. "We then got caught in a pinch with projects. How we were going to make up that gap took over discussions. And Dakota County leaving put us in a deeper hole."
In June, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 to leave CTIB by 2019, noting that the county has received less funding from the coalition than it has paid in. Dakota County officials said their communities had contributed about 13 percent of CTIB's total transit tax, yet has received about 7 percent of its capital and operating grants.
However, pointing to revenue that Dakota County receives from a leased vehicle sales tax, CTIB leaders disputed the county's figures.
No more board?
The conversation has since escalated.
At their regular meeting Wednesday, the CTIB members voted 8-to-3 to approve a resolution that states their "preliminary intent to dissolve" the CTIB.
The board might finalize the vote in the spring and could disband soon after. The earliest it could stop levying sales taxes would likely be early fall. The decision to disband the joint powers agreement must also be approved by the five county boards, which could delay dissolution.
"I voted on the basis that it's a preliminary step to move forward," said Ortega, who voted with the majority. "It isn't a final vote."
CTIB dissolution does not necessarily mean that the local transit taxes would disappear forever.
Non-CTIB counties are allowed to levy up to a 0.50 percent sales tax for transportation or transit — as 24 counties presently do — so it's entirely conceivable that any of the five CTIB counties could raise more funds than they currently do and maintain more local control over how the money is spent.
But continued cooperation would be essential, regardless of the format, Ortega said.
"The reality is that the only county that could fund the cash flow for a line by themselves would be Hennepin," Ortega said. "That's why we come together. That's why coordinating and partnering with other counties is still going to have to take place."
To launch new transit lines, federal transportation funding typically requires a 50 percent local match.
Since 2008, the Counties Transit Improvement Board has raised key funds for Metro Transit's Green Line from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis; the Blue Line from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America in Bloomington; and the Red Line — the state's first bus rapid-transit route that runs along Cedar Avenue in Dakota County.
In addition to launch costs, CTIB has provided about half the annual operating subsidy for each corridor, with the state picking up the rest.
"The counties are going to have to step forward to provide that 50 percent operating share," McLaughlin said.
Otherwise, without the board in place as an official partner, the state could end up footing more of the bill for existing lines and new ones. Board dissolution could be delayed by CTIB's existing financial commitments to those transit corridors, including $110 million in bonds.
"On corridors that run across two counties, the two counties are going to have to figure out who pays what share," McLaughlin said. "And those agreements will have to be in place by March. We need to have a solid handoff."