from Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

When the 2012 legislative session opened on January 24, Transit for Livable Communities had four objectives on our agenda (pdf).

  1. Maintain Current Operating Funding for Public Transit Statewide
  2. Capital Bonding for Transit Investments
  3. Enable Financing for Transit Oriented Development
  4. Increase Funding for Bicycle and Pedestrian Access

When the gavel marked close of session on May 11, the scorecard was mixed but the big transit story was that Southwest light rail transit was not in the bonding bill. The goal of securing $25 million for the next light rail line in the Twin Cities regional transit system was not achieved.

This is a serious setback. It results from a Republican caucus position that is against light rail and allegedly supportive of expanded bus service. During the session, a wide array of voices marshaled in support of Southwest light rail transit.

  • Governor Dayton included the project in his bonding proposal.
  • The business community (including Minneapolis Regional, Twin West, Saint Paul, Edina, and Eden Prairie Chambers of Commerce, but notably not the Minnesota Chamber) repeatedly argued that funding for transit in the busy southwest corridor is essential to retain current employers and attract new jobs. For example, read this op-ed in the Pioneer Press.
  • All of the communities along the line support the investment. People from across the metro area wrote letters to the editor telling why transit options matter to them. See letters here and here. A statewide poll showed that residents across the state support the line.
  • The Met Council, Metro Transit, and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) helped educate legislators and gain positive media coverage of the project. See this Star Tribune editorial. 
  • Transit for Livable Communities and the Transit Partners coalition rallied support from members, launching an online campaign and delivering more than 1,000 petitions to the Governor and legislative leadership.
  • Senator Latz and Senator Bonoff and Representative Hornstein gave inspiring floor speeches supporting the Southwest LRT line.

But the line was left out of the bonding bill.

Southwest LRT planners will apply for funding through the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) “Business Development through Capital Projects Grant Program” that was included in the bonding bill. The Southwest line will compete with many other projects for a slice of this $47.5 million fund.

In the short term, political leaders advancing the Southwest LRT line are committed to finding the money (through local sources) to keep the project moving through the preliminary engineering phase. But GO bonding will be needed to keep the Southwest LRT on schedule to start construction in 2014 and open in 2018. The state share of this project is 10%, or $125 million. Each $1 in state funds leverages $9 from local and federal sources. See a virtual tour of the line in this article.

As all the voices arrayed in support of the line made clear, this investment is crucial to future economic growth in the region. It also will create construction jobs and, when open, will give residents across the metro the option of saving money (and polluting less) by using transit. Transit for Livable Communities with our members and allies will keep fighting.

The 2012 legislative scorecard has some wins.

Transit fared better in two other areas—defeating a proposed transit fare increase and securing limited funding for transit in the bonding bill. Transit advocates successfully battled against a proposed 25 cent fare increase, arguing that it makes no sense to increase fares when demand for transit is growing. The measure was pulled from the transportation policy bill.

The capital bonding bill included $2.5 million for the Minneapolis Interchange, an expansion of the transit hub at Target Field which will serve increased ridership expected when the Central Corridor opens in 2014 and when the Southwest LRT opens in 2018. The bonding bill also included $6.4 million for transit facilities in greater Minnesota. These all were in our 2012 legislative agenda.

TOD remains to be seen

No bills were heard to enable financing and accelerate transit-oriented-development (TOD), one of our goals for the session. Given the focus on the bonding bill and Vikings stadium, this was not a surprise. With the Central Corridor LRT coming on soon, and critical station area planning underway for the Southwest LRT, local and regional conversations continue regarding ways to leverage more and better TOD. We anticipate future legislative efforts to advance “value capture” and other innovative financial strategies for transit oriented development. Robust TOD boosts the value of transit investments by making sure housing, jobs, and commerce efficiently connect to the transit line.

A bicycle and pedestrian policy win but no funding

TLC was part of a coalition seeking the creation of a State of Minnesota Safe Routes to School program (to complement the federally-funded program) and funding in the bonding bill. The coalition was successful in the former but not the latter. It was encouraging to see a high level of bipartisan support for the Safe Routes to School initiative, including very persuasive testimony from Apple Valley High School Principal Gary Anger and two Mounds View High School students (Patrick Sullivan and Samantha Kaslow). Hopefully, the foundation was laid for future success in the House and Senate Capital Investment committees, which oversee bonding legislation. It is often the case that projects seeking GO bonding need to build their case and coalition of supporters over multiple legislative sessions.

Building the coalition

TLC is committed to building a broader and more vocal coalition for increased transit options, including the Southwest light rail line. Through our online petition campaign and Facebook page, we will continue to collect signatures and build public support for policy goals through the 2013 legislative session. We urge you to sign on and to inspire your friends, neighbors, family and colleagues to do the same.

The 2012 legislative session clearly showed the importance of legislative support for transit investments. TLC urges transit advocates to talk with candidates for the House and Senate about their stance on transportation issues. Stay tuned for more details on questions for candidates, how and where to get their attention, and how to make transit, bicycling and walking more visible priorities for your community.