Friday, March 28, 2008

Transportation: Fighting over the spoils

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:54 AM |  

So the vandals have sacked Rome, and now they are fighting over the spoils. Ripped from the Pioneer Press headlines, 'Fight erupts over new sales taxes for transit. At issue: whether money should be used to bail out Met Council.' Wow. Even I thought the transit kids would play nice together a little longer than this.

A couple of weeks ago, I cited comments by Rep. Bernie Lieder, a DFLer from Crookston and architect of the transportation bill the Legislature passed over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto. Lieder said, in effect, that county board members had concerns about the Metropolitan Council's power and influence.

To address those concerns, the transportation bill created a joint powers board through which the seven metro-area counties would influence new spending on transit. And should the Met Council and this new layer of government disagree on transit spending, I predicted, one or the other would be back at the Legislature looking for new money.

And here we are. A combination of Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts and a sagging economy have created a $47.5 million hole in the Met Council's transit budget, which substantially exceeds the $30.8 million bailout funding earmarked in the transportation bill for Met Council projects. Whatcha gonna do?

Pawlenty's proposed $30 million reduction in state General Fund support of regional transit operations makes the Met Council's self-inflicted problem worse, but the response of transit supporters to the shortfall once again highlights their unsustainable economic model of massive public transit expansion.

Conrad deFiebre on the Web site of the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020 rants about the governor's budget cuts to transportation and notes the Met Council bailout money "was needed because of a big hole in transit budgets left by declining revenues from the motor vehicle sales tax, which in a slowing economy has consistently fallen short of projections based on auto sales."

A sagging economy may have hastened the process, but isn't the goal of progressive transit policy to get people out of their cars? If that policy is successful, won't it lead to people buying fewer new cars regardless of the economy? Shouldn't someone have accounted for falling tax revenue? Or do we expect people to buy cars and just not drive them for sake of the "common good"?

Of course, the dirty little secret is that no one really expects light rail to actually fulfill its promises, especially those supporting it. DeFiebre laments on: "So now the talk is of fare increases and service cuts, the familiar fallback that hits hardest those least able to pay. Metro Transit riders are already paying some of the nation's highest fares, financing 30 percent of bus operations and a remarkable 38 percent of the cost of running the Hiawatha light rail line."

Are those LRT riders from Bloomington going to work in downtown really those "least able to pay?" Those people cramming the train on Vikings game days or projected to flock to the new Twins Stadium, $200 tickets ($65 along the outfield baselines) in hand? What is "remarkable" is that anyone could term a 62 percent operating deficit acceptable, much less a "success" — an operating deficit that under the new scheme, according to Lieder, will no longer come out of general funds; counties had better look to property taxes.

As quoted by deFiebre, Dave Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities carries transit support duplicity to another level. "More people than ever depend on the bus system to get around," he said. "In a struggling economy, bus service should be the last thing we cut since it directly impacts many people's abilities to reach their jobs."

OK. Then why, independent of the governor's budget proposal, are we planning to cut bus service on University Avenue? We are because it was necessary to cook the books in favor of light rail to obtain federal funding for the Central Corridor project. So what if people have to walk farther to catch a train, which will run less frequently than the current bus service. How does that not affect people's ability to reach their jobs?"

Of course it does, but current transit planning is not being done for the benefit of the public. The transportation policy being railroaded through the Legislature is about convenience for the well-connected and a legacy for the legislative elite for which everyone else pays. It's cool. The current dust-up among the Met Council, the Legislature and the counties is just more of the $6.6 billion entertainment value of the "historic" transportation bill, which is the best most of us can hope for.

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday, March 23, 2008.