So, That’s It Then? Nothing for Transit Again?

What began in January as a comprehensive initiative to ensure that each of Minnesota’s 87 counties had some form of accessible transit ended in frustration, as the 2007 session ended with little progress on transit issues.

“We had high hopes and a sound strategy,” said Joel Ulland, public policy director for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society-MN Chapter, “but in the end we have very little to show for it.”

What lawmakers ultimately passed was referred to as a “lights on” transportation and transit funding package with limited new policies and projects. No provisions from the disability package were included.

The Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD), a cross-disability coalition of more than 100 disability advocacy and provider organizations, spent months crafting and promoting its “14 by 2010” plan, which sought to implement 14 hours of accessible transit in every Minnesota county. Today there are seven counties with no accessible transit service and another handful with only limited options in or near the county seat. Despite the strong support of House and Senate Transit Subcommittee Chairs Frank Hornstein and Scott Dibble, respectively, limited dollars and gas tax politics prevented the passage of the plan.

Efforts late in the session to scale back the proposal and produce a study that would develop a strategic plan and resource estimate to achieve the 14-hour service goal were also unsuccessful.

“In the end, even the transit policy bill, which didn’t have a dime of funding in it, was also left unfinished,” Ulland said.

Disability advocates weren’t the only constituency left shaking their heads due to the stalled transportation proposals. A strong coalition of business, transit, and low-income groups pushed hard for a gas tax increase that would both expand and accelerate road construction and transit projects.

On the day after the session ended, one transit advocate wrote in an e-mail: “So, that’s it then? Nothing for transit again? Wasn’t there anything that could have been done to save parts of the bill?”

While overwhelming majorities in both legislative bodies approved gas tax increases between 5 and 10 cents per gallon to increase transportation funding, in the end, they could not overcome the veto of Governor Pawlenty. An attempt to do so in the session’s waning hours fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required by the state constitution.

Other elements of the MN-CCD proposal included:

• the promotion of regional one-stop call centers to ease the scheduling of transportation rides, regardless of age or eligibility status for public programs

• intercounty agreements that would eliminate the current practice of changing vehicles at a county line in order to complete a scheduled ride

• same-day ride guarantees for trips of 25 miles or less

• scheduling of rides up to four days in advance

Other areas of the budget that affect transportation for people with disabilities also produced mixed results. Metro Mobility service will remain as is, with no changes in service levels or fare increases. The Medical Assistance transportation system, which is run by a broker in the seven-county metro area, will see the elimination of the brokered system for special transportation services when the contract expires next year. While there have been customer service issues with the brokered, or MNET, system, many advocates opposed an outright repeal, believing that a call center approach, if done well, offers many more consumer benefits than obstacles.