Transit, specifically rail transit, is a hot topic these days in the Twin Cities. The Hiawatha LRT line has been operational for almost seven years and NorthStar has been in service for about a year and a half. The Twin Cities is now seeing construction start on the Central Corridor and federal funding approval in the works for the Southwest corridor. But where does all of this money come from to plan for, build, and operate these lines? Transit is not a one jurisdiction issue – so who pays?
The Metropolitan Council operates the current transit services in the Twin Cities and they create the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan. This plan is very general and basically draws lines on the map of where future transit corridors should be. But they do not provide funding for in-depth planning or construction. Historically, all the planning and funding has come from county regional rail authorities – if a line went through two counties, those counties would pay for planning. But a transit system will not function properly or serve its residents to the fullest if it is a system of county by county rail lines. Just think about how the freeway system would work if each state was in charge of its own segments. Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, who have more political and financial resources, became the lead entities on many of the rail transit lines in the Twin Cities when other counties like Dakota, Washington, and Anoka would benefit from the service.
To resolve this issue of large, dominate counties from taking the lead (and therefore the highest levels of service and all the costs) on projects the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) was created. CTIB was created by the legislature in 2008 and required commissioners of the seven county area to vote on becoming a member. Five counties, not including Scott and Carver, voted to sign the Joint Powers Agreement. Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington, Anoka, and Dakota Counties now have a ¼ of a percent sales tax that is collected and the revenues go towards planning and construction of transit lines. The only stipulation is that the money had to be divided evenly and can be for any project that is in the Met Councils 2030 Transportation Policy Plan. The main idea is to create a transit system that is developed region, not county, wide.
This system seems, on the surface, to work great. There is a very low tax that funds projects, money is divided evenly, every county on CTIB has a voice, and everything is being planned in accordance to region-wide priorities. But there is a catch; we all know there cannot be a perfect funding system!
The catch is, wait for it, POLITICS! Of course politics come in to play. CTIB is supposed to be a Board that treats every county equally and provides transit benefits equally but the county commissioners who are the voting members seem to have a tough time understanding that. Board members typically do not act as though they are impartial. They vote and discuss transit issues from a county specific stand point. Yes, I understand that they are elected by their county but CTIB was created in an effort to produce a great, region-wide transit system.
To make matters worse, the legislature is now considering using the ¼ of a percent sales tax to fund operation and maintenance of the current transit system and pulling the money Metro Transit normally uses for this purpose. We are in a tough economic situation but millions of dollars have already been invested in planning and building of transit lines in the Twin Cities. If this money is taken away these projects, including Central Corridor, will be left unfunded.
The question becomes; is there a way to create a transit system that serves multiple jurisdictions without having politics come into play and will transit ever be seen as a universal benefit to all members of a community. The way the Twin Cities politicians treat transit funding and planning, the answer will always be “no.” CTIB seems to be such a great solution to regional transit planning but there are so many politics tied into it. Is there any other way to plan, fund, and implement a great transit system?