Twin Cities bus and rail transit are among the state-supported services that dodged a bullet during the 2011 special session of the Minnesota Legislature. That’s crucial to people with disabilities that rely on regular Metro Transit route service.
The fate of Twin Cities transit service had been up in the air for months. At one point during the legislative session Metro Transit faced a $120 million cut.
In July transit riders rallied in the face of sweeping service cuts and fare hikes that could have hit the $5.25 mark. Uncertainty over the extent to which the state could cut transit funding had Metro Transit and Metropolitan Council scrambling to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cuts and changes could have been made to 131 of 146 existing bus routes. Waits for service could have been much longer. Riders would have to walk longer distances to get to some stops.\
Two hearings July 6-7 in St. Paul and Minneapolis drew more than 200 people in total. Dozens of transit riders told officials that if drastic cuts are made, they would lose access to jobs, health care, school and day-to-day activities. Some speakers at the hearings described disabilities that already make it challenging to use transit. Others are jobless. Some ride transit for environmental reasons. Many are among the 40 percent of Minnesotans who don’t own motor vehicles. At both meetings, people gasped and groaned when they saw the map of potential route cuts.
More than 78 million people rode Metro Transit buses and trains last year. Jon Levin, director of service development for Metro Transit, said that regional routes make up 74.4 percent of Metro Transit’s services, with light trail, commuter rail, suburban contract services, Metro Mobility and other services comprising the rest.
Advocacy groups including Transit for Livable Communities, ISAIAH, District Councils Collaborative and groups representing persons with disabilities spoke out against potential transit route cuts and fare hikes. So did agencies that provide service for people with disabilities, including Opportunity Partners.
“This is a lifeline and it’s being cut away,” said St. Paul resident Phillip Sporer. Sporer, who has a disability, noted that for people on limited incomes, fare increases will make it harder to ride the bus.
Other people with disabilities told Metro Transit representatives that longer waits for buses and other service cuts would cause hardship. Some speakers said they would lose access to jobs and education.
Levin agreed that low-income people and people with disabilities will be affected by fare hikes. Although Metro Mobility does provide service for people with disabilities, many people opt to ride regular buses due to cost and convenience.
The transit-funding package that emerged from the July 20 special session represents a 40 percent or $52 million cut. The cut is covered in part by moving $15 million of sales tax proceeds in five metropolitan counties. The sales tax for Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties, is meant to be used to build new rail and bus transit. The shift has met objections from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which distributes the sales tax revenue.
But state lawmakers contend it doesn’t make sense to expand the transit system when it faces so many cuts.
The cuts will also be made up by withholding state motor vehicles sales tax money from suburban transit carriers, cutting administrative costs and using about $3 million in reserve funds. The result means that a series of hearings on transit cuts and fare hikes set for this month have been canceled. The approved state funding provides $78 million in general fund money to Metro Transit over the next two years. After the session ended, Haigh expressed relief, saying that the situation could have been much worse.
The transportation bill vetoed in May by Gov. Mark Dayton would have eliminated $109 million, or 85 percent, of transit dollars from the state’s general fund. The total transit budget is $375 million, with the rest coming from the motor vehicle sales tax, fares and other sources.
Metro Mobility, the paratransit service for people with disabilities, would not have been affected by the threatened cuts.