I recently visited Houston. While on a tour of the Red Line, their first LRT line, I was told the story of its funding. Tom DeLay twice blocked federal funding for the line, meaning the entire initial 7.5 mile was built with local dollars – $324 million of them. Houston seemed to be living the Strong Towns dream (they have since accepted federal money for other rail segments). I was told repeatedly on the tour that they did not build the Red Line to serve park-and-rides (later I learned the line does have at least one, at the southern terminus of the line near the maintenance facility), and that this has contributed to the line’s success (2012 weekday ridership exceeded our 12-mile Blue Line by 14%). The representative of the transit agency told me they were able to build this line on their own because the agency has its own one penny sales tax dedicated to transit.
After I got back, I started reading the Metropolitan Council’s draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan. Under the “current revenue scenario”, meaning sans MoveMN-type legislation, our urban cores are basically getting a few bus upgrades and the completion of planned
commuter rail suburban-serving LRT. Even under the increased revenue scenario, we’re apparently done building LRT projects through 2040. Over the next 25 years, Minneapolis and Saint Paul alone are expected to add over 130,000 people, and for the most part we’re just planning to upgrade some buses (under the optimistic funding scenario). Don’t get me wrong, I love the bus, but it seems like we could be more visionary.
In a daze induced by Houston heat and possibly mosquito-born illness, I asked myself: could our urban cores strike out on our own, transit-wise? MoveMN has its opponents and proponents, but the road (sorry) to its passage will be long, winding and almost certainly full of political compromise. Writers on this site will not agree whether its benefits will be worth its costs. So what if Minneapolis and Saint Paul just wanted to build transit on our own? What if we had a one penny sales tax dedication?
According to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, Minneapolis and Saint Paul combined generated over $9.6 billion in taxable sales in 2012, which would equate to $96 million annually from a one-penny sales tax. At that level, we could build an (urban) LRT line every 10 years, a streetcar-type project every two years, the entire 11-line Arterial BRT network in four years, 0r 6,000 heated bus shelters per year.
Is this a thought exercise? Yes. Minneapolis and Saint Paul would have to get legislative approval to levy a local transit sales tax. Many people would have strong opinions about this. And of course there are those pesky operations costs which I neglected to mention in the paragraph above (I assume Metro Transit would give us a good deal on that, right?). But a locally-funded transit system that served transit-supportive areas really well might not be completely out of realm of possibility.
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