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Paring down government excess would improve transportation picture

The proposed merger of the Prior Lake and Shakopee transit systems with the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) brings back a lot of memories. You’ve undoubtedly heard of the “Minnesota Miracle.” This is the story of the “Minnesota Mess.” It gets pretty complicated. You may want to read this column twice.

In 1981, there was great dissatisfaction among suburban communities with the bus service they received from the Metropolitan Transit Commission. I worked at the commission at the time and can recall sitting in legislative hearings listening to suburban mayors argue that their property taxes were subsidizing transit services in the region rather than in their local communities. They had a point. The difficulty, of course, was that three-fourths of the ridership, and with it the operating expenses, were in the first-ring suburbs and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fewer people used transit in places like Prior Lake. Yet, bus service to these communities was extremely expensive, requiring a much higher subsidy per passenger then local services in the core cities.

The problem was the property tax. However, rather than working within the existing commission structure and reformulating the property tax, or finding another revenue source, the Minnesota Legislature bowed to political pressure and authorized municipalities that met certain criteria, and felt they were not receiving adequate transit services, to “opt out” and use their property tax money to form their own transit authorities.

It was a terrible decision. It set off a chain reaction that Balkanized transit governance, creating the 25 separate entities that are responsible for transit planning and operations today. Not satisfied, in 1994 the Legislature made things worse when it passed the Metropolitan Reorganization Act, giving the unelected Met Council additional power and responsibility over transit. It added another layer in 2008 when it created the Counties Transit Improvement Board.

Incredibly, in 2001 the Legislature reversed itself and, in yet another political move, prohibited the use of property taxes for transit operations. Instead, it shifted funding to the motor vehicle sales tax, thereby taking away the justification that was used for creating the opt-outs in the first place. Today the Met Council is the designated recipient for distributing motor vehicle sales tax funds to transit providers. It administers state and federal funds, as well.

Confused? So was the Legislature, because it called on the Office of the Legislative Auditor to study the issue of transit governance. That’s what the Legislature does when it makes a mess and doesn’t want to deal with it.

The result was a 2011 report that came to the profound conclusion that “the governance of transit in the Twin Cities region has become more complicated over the past 40 years.” It went on to recommend, among other things, that the Prior Lake and Shakopee systems merge, but it didn’t call for sweeping changes to fix the fundamental problem.

Minnesota politicians love government too much to do that. Heaven forbid we should go back to the original Metropolitan Transit Commission and return responsibility and accountability for transit planning and operations to a single metro agency. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of government entities with their own policy boards, paid staff and consultants. It’s great for turf building and a wonderful jobs program, if you’re a government bureaucrat or a consultant, but it makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to get anything done.

Consider the current controversy that could scuttle the Southwest Light Rail Project. The Twin Cities and Western Railroad is catching all the blame because it’s trying to protect its property and its business interests. Yet, it’s being held hostage by a group of government agencies, among them the Met Council, that can’t seem to get their act together because they’re too busy appeasing a bunch of “not in my backyard” types who don’t want freight trains or light rail.

It’s important to improve bus and rail transit services, where it makes economic sense to do so, and I support the Central Corridor and Southwest Corridor rail projects and the eventual extension of rail service to Scott and Dakota Counties via the Dan Patch Line, but I doubt that our current governance structure is up to the job. A good place to start would be merging Prior Lake and Shakopee transit with the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority. With the local property tax out of the picture and no longer an issue, the merger could produce operational savings and improve service. Moreover, it would reduce the number of government agencies involved in transit planning and operations.

However, much more needs to be done. Reforming the make-up of the Met Council by replacing its appointed membership with local elected officials might be a good place to start. Or, how about reviving the Metropolitan Transit Commission and putting all 25 policy boards and advisory bodies out of business?

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for Diers, email editor@plamerican.com.