County hopes legislature lifts fog over transit

WashCo_logoThe Washington County Board of Commissioners hopes state lawmakers will soon lift the fog slowing enveloping transit issues in the metro area.

In fact, if commissioners had their way, the state would back transit governance and the collection of any transit-related revenue.

County Engineer Wayne Sandberg spent about 30 minutes discussing issues related to the Counties Transit Investment Board during a county board workshop. The session came about two weeks after Sandberg briefed the board on recommendations made by Gov. Mark Dayton’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee.

Among TFAC’s many recommendations was a quarter-cent state sales tax to fund transit projects statewide. CTIB currently collects a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 wheelage levy in the five member counties. Sandberg said those two taxes bring in about $100 million in annual revenue.

Sandberg said the TFAC-proposed quarter-cent sales tax would be handled differently than CTIB’s sales tax.

“The governor’s proposal would be done by the legislature and imposed on the seven (metro) counties or imposed by the Metropolitan Council,” he said. “This is separate from expansion. It would be separate from CTIB and it would be handled separately. It could go to the Met Council for distribution.”

Sandberg said CTIB representatives meet Feb. 20 to develop the group’s legislative platform. Among items he said CTIB’s platform could include are bonding for projects; adequate funding for and expansion of metropolitan transit; an increase in the transit sales tax, and allowing regional railroad authorities to look at bus rapid transit.

However, Sandberg admitted that a Washington County proposal to reform transit governance has stalled.

“One of the things we’re not hearing about is transit governance reform. We’re not seeing a lot of counties rush to our side on that one,” he said.

The TFAC sales tax proposal drew a lukewarm response from commissioners.
“It gets really complicated when you add layers of sales tax,” said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke.

“It’s like the governor said. If the legislature opposes the quarter-cent sales tax, they should show him where they would get the revenue,” added Commissioner Lisa Weik.

Weik said she would like to see increased MTC bus service in areas like Woodbury to boost economic development. She added that two companies rejected moving into the vacant State Farm building at Radio Drive and Interstate 94 because bus service to Woodbury ends in the early evening.

“Fifteen hundred jobs in the State Farm building have been lost for eight years,” she said.

However, Sandberg said the murky transit picture at the State Capitol could clear in the next few weeks.

“The session is new and things are changing all the time,” he said.

Two commissioners made it clear about one change they want.

“We would like the state to take governance of transit back,” Weik said.

“It seems a lot simpler if the state took back the collection of the sales tax and transit,” added Commissioner Gary Kriesel.