WRITTEN BY BARB THOMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TRANSIT FOR LIVABLE COMMUNITIES
Advocates are already hard at work on a plan for 2014 to secure funding to expand our region’s networks for transit, bicycling, and walking. Transportation—the cost of getting to work, school, and other places—is the second-largest household expense, more than health care or education (only housing costs more). But, so far, this region lags behind others in making the investments to ensure that more people have transportation options that are more affordable, healthier, and that expand job opportunity and access.
While the 2013 legislative session was notable for many accomplishments, pivotal new funding for transportation was not among them. This was despite the efforts of a large and diverse Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition, headed by Transit for Livable Communities, a long time grantee of the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnestoa. The coalition represents labor, health, environmental, social service, faith-based, and community-based social justice organizations as well as developers and businesses. For a list of coalition partners and more background, visit www.transit4mn.org.
Even before the 2013 session began, there were many positive signals about transit, bicycling, and walking. Polls taken early in the session indicated that 91% of Minnesotans support state investment in transit and a majority support including bicycling and walking as part of transportation funding. A business group, The Itasca Project, released a study showing a large return on investments in transit.
The 52 members of the Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition signed on explicitly supporting increasing funding by $330 million per year to build out (in 15 years!) the regional system of transit, including more local bus and rail, and safe, accessible connections by bicycling and walking, as well as transit expansion in greater Minnesota.
The Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition worked hard to share the many ways that more transportation options would benefit working people, students struggling with debt, and seniors hoping to retain their independence. Coalition partners and their members turned out at rallies and called their legislators, making the connections between transit and economic opportunity.
- A young man from Vadnais Heights shared his story of being stranded when his car broke down, with bus service too infrequent to get him reliably to his job.
- Community members from North Minneapolis and East Saint Paul said they want sidewalks where seniors and kids can safely walk, along with more transit.
- A Bloomington company with 500+ employees related the experience of seeing their health care costs decline as their employees responded to incentives to take transit, bicycle, or walk to work (or a combination of the three!).
- A coalition partner testified about the obesity epidemic and the fact that people who take transit walk more than three times as much as people who only drive.
For much of the legislative session, it looked like transit might be a win.
The Governor supported a half-cent increase in the regional sales tax for transit. The Senate passed a bill that included several provisions supported by the coalition—a 1/2 cent sales tax for transit with dedication for bike/walk and measures to ensure that diverse communities would have more participation in transportation decisions and access to transportation jobs.
In the end, however, leadership in the House believed transit would have to wait until a future legislative session. Lack of support for a gas tax increase to provide funding for roads and bridges was a key stumbling block, especially in greater Minnesota.
There were some wins in the final 2013 transportation bill.
Here is what was approved for the biennium, including elements pushed by the Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition and/or members of the coalition:
- No cuts to general fund allocation to transit ($130 million) plus $18 million for the state’s share of operating costs of the Blue line (Hiawatha LRT), Green Line (Central Corridor LRT, which opens 2014), and Northstar Commuter Rail.
- A one-time $37 million general fund allocation for Southwest LRT, which keeps planning/engineering moving. The project will now need $81 million next year from the state to secure a federal match and start construction. The state’s share of the project is 10% overall.
- A small increase for transit in Greater Minnesota ($256,000 extra from the general fund plus $10.8 million leased vehicle sales tax). This meets only 60-65% of the need in greater Minnesota, rather than the statutory goal of meeting 80% by 2015.
- $500,000 for Safe Routes to Schools–the first time the state has allocated funding to this program.
- Language allowing Minneapolis to cover capital cost of streetcars through tax increment financing.
- $300 million in Trunk Highway bonding for roads. This is not new money, but simply approval to bond against expected future highway fund revenue.
- Language that requires MnDOT to fund the new Transportation Alternatives program (which funds bicycling and walking projects, among many other categories) under the federal MAP-21 law at the same level as previous years.
- Language that encourages the Met Council to steer some of the funds it budgets for public outreach and input to on-the-ground grassroots groups and local business associations.
- Language that facilitates efforts by MnDOT and the Met Council to work more closely with community based employment assistance firms and training facilities to meet the hiring goals set by the state’s Human Rights department. Language about economically disadvantaged businesses will encourage more contracting opportunities as well.
- Both transportation policy pieces contain reporting provisions that will help track outcomes and measure progress.
While we did not get our big win in 2013 – an increase in funding to expedite the build-out of the transit system – the Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition fought long and hard. The campaign was a three-pronged effort, including communications, grassroots outreach, and legislative work (funded by member donations). The night of the bill introduction in the House, the hearing room was packed with supporters of transit, bicycling, and walking. Throughout the session, countless volunteers spent time and energy doing everything they could and more to advocate for this increased funding.
All this work now sets the stage for 2014. The Coalition will continue to fight until the Metro Region and Greater Minnesota gets the new funding for transit, bicycling and walking that Minnesota deserves!
Thanks to Ethan Fawley (Fresh Energy), Sherry Munyon (MPTA), Russ Adams (Alliance for Metropolitan Stability), and (from Transit for Livable Communities) Dave Van Hattum, and Hilary Reeves, and for contributions to this summary.