State Funding Promises Brighter Future For Transit

The last few months have been a difficult period for transit advocates, customers and employees, as well as for the […]

The last few months have been a difficult period for transit advocates, customers and employees, as well as for the Metropolitan Council. No one likes the idea of raising transit fares or cutting service. We know that’s a sure-fire formula for reducing transit ridership, just the opposite of what most of us would like to see. However, faced with a $60 million budget shortfall in the coming two years, the Council was forced to increase transit fares by 25 cents across-the-board and reduce Metro Transit service by 3.5 percent, beginning in September. The bulk of these cuts involve high-subsidy, low-ridership routes and route segments.

Fortunately, the global budget agreement negotiated by Governor Pawlenty and legislative leaders during the special session spared us from deeper service cuts that otherwise would have been necessary. The agreement, approved July 13, 2005 by the Legislature, provided an additional $40 million for regional transit services. This action will preserve transit service for more than 200,000 area residents who travel by bus or rail every day, about a third of whom have no other means of transportation. It is an essential first step toward expanding the transit system and keeping pace with our region’s growth.

By the year 2030, we estimate that the seven-county area will grow by nearly 1 million people, 471,000 households and 563,000 jobs. As I often have said, growth is a good thing. It brings new jobs, economic opportunities, higher property values and additional tax revenue to help pay for essential public services.

But accommodating growth is not always easy, as anyone who has been stuck in rush-hour traffic can readily attest. By the year 2030, the projected growth of our region will add 4 million daily trips to our already crowded transportation network, a 37 percent increase from current levels. Traffic congestion already ranks as the No. 1 concern of metro area residents, according to our annual survey. There are no “silver bullets” that will eliminate congestion, but we believe improved transit can help slow its growth and improve mobility for everyone.

The Council’s long-range transportation plan calls for increasing transit ridership 50 percent by 2020, and doubling it by 2030. The plan includes developing five new bus and/or rail “transitways” by 2020, as well as adding new express bus service, limited-stop routes, park-and-ride lots and other passenger amenities.

With the help of Governor Pawlenty, the Council secured nearly $54 million in new bonding money to begin implementing our plan. The legislation includes:

• $37.5 million for the construction of the Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake.

• $10 million for bus rapid transit in the Cedar Avenue corridor from the Mall of America in Bloomington to Lakeville.

• $5.25 million for an 11-mile light-rail line or bus rapid transit in the Central corridor on University Avenue between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. (A cost-benefit analysis of the two alternatives is currently underway.)

• $500,000 for continued work on the Red Rock corridor from Hastings through downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis.

• $500,000 for work on the Rush Line corridor from downtown St. Paul through Ramsey, Washington, Chisago and Pine Counties.

Along with the $40 million in additional operating funds, the bonding package represents a vote of confidence in the Council’s plan to improve our regional transit system, provide transportation options for more of our residents and slow the growth in congestion.

Peter Bell is chair of the Metropolitan Council, a 17-member body whose responsibilities include regional planning and transit.