Changes Planned to Erase Budget Shortfall in Transit System

During the seven hearings on proposed changes in transit fares and service, the Metropolitan Council heard from many distressed customers […]

During the seven hearings on proposed changes in transit fares and service, the Metropolitan Council heard from many distressed customers who rely on the transit system to get to work, school and other vital destinations.

We sympathize with their plight as much as anyone. We know about a third of our 225,000 daily riders use Metro Transit either because they do not own a car or cannot operate one. We are not eager to deprive anyone of the service they have come to depend upon.

Nonetheless, the Council is faced with the prospect of a $60 million shortfall in the transit budget for the coming two years. As we have explained, half of the transit system’s projected budget shortfall is the result of lower-than-expected revenues from the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax (MVST), one of our major resources of transit funding.

Of the remaining $30 million, $14 million is the result of rising health insurance costs for transit employees, $4 million is from rising fuel costs and the remaining $12 million is from other inflationary cost increases.

Faced with this projected shortfall, the Met Council simply must attempt to close the gap by raising fares, reducing service and taking other steps to make the transit system more efficient. We have made use of available reserves and have no other source of funds for transit operations.

It is important to keep in mind that there has not been an across-the-board increase in transit fares since 2001, and that farebox revenues cover less than 30 percent of the system’s total operating costs. It is just good business practice to adjust fares periodically rather than expecting the taxpayers to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the cost.

Similarly, it is prudent to reexamine the merit of some bus routes and route segments in light of their high cost and relatively low ridership. In proposing service reductions, we attempted to preserve routes needed to ease traffic congestion, serve major job locations, maintain the connectivity of the system and minimize ridership loss.

Over the long run, the Met Council remains committed to growing the transit system and slowing the growth in traffic congestion. Our long-range transportation plan calls for increasing transit ridership 50 percent between now and 2020, with the goal of doubling it by 2030.

Our plan envisions significant improvements in the bus system, including new express bus routes, limited-stop service, transit stations and park-and-ride lots, as well as the construction of five bus or rail “transitways.”

Governor Pawlenty’s transportation investment proposal now before the Legislature would enable the Council to implement our plan. Under his proposal, which would be phased in starting in 2008, 40 percent of MVST revenues would be earmarked for transit. When fully implemented, this proposal would provide an additional $100 million a year for metropolitan transit.

However, we still face a serious budget shortfall today. There is always the possibility that the Legislature will find a way to help alleviate our budget problems. However, we cannot count on that possibility. We must be prepared to operate transit service during the coming two years within existing resources.

Moreover, fare and service changes cannot be implemented overnight. We needed to initiate proposed changes now so there is adequate time to conduct public hearings, meet all of the legal requirements and take final action. Under our current timetable, the fare increases would be implemented July 1, while the service reductions would be implemented in September and December.

Metro Transit has 2,800 very dedicated employees. With their help, we will strive to provide the best service for the most riders with the resources available to us.

To contact us, or for more information, visit our website at www.metrocouncil.org.

Peter Bell is chair of the Metropolitan Council, a 17-member body appointed by the governor that is responsible for regional planning, transit and other programs.

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