Divided legislature faces usual hurdles over transportation deal

While the state has a surplus of nearly $9.3 billion, the Legislature has plenty of ideas — and money — to address transportation issues.

Whether any of these ideas will come to fruition remains to be seen. Republican and Democrat-Farmer-Labour lawmakers disagree on how best to handle travel, and the dispute is complicated by global factors such as climate change, gas price inflation caused by part by the war in Ukraine and a pandemic that has changed how we get around and where we work.

But lawmakers agreed on a few things: Both houses asked the legislative auditor to examine the Metropolitan Council’s handling of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which is now years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

And, both chambers agree that driving should be easier and safer, and that owners of electric vehicles should pay their fair share to maintain our roads.

The DFL-controlled House voted to advance their $820 Million Vision on April 26, as the GOP-majority Senate plans to vote soon on their $1.2 billion transportation set.

Construction of the Southwest Light Rail in Snafu may hamper area transit priorities

All lawmakers in both houses except Rep. Erik Mortenson, R-Shakopee, voted to audit the Met Council’s handling of the South West Light Rail project, which will extend today’s Green Line in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie when it opens in 2027. Governor Tim Walz signed the bill into law in March.

A cyclist passes the nearly complete 21st Street station in Minneapolis, which will eventually serve the Southwest Light Rail Project to extend the current 14-mile Green Line to Eden Prairie. Completion of the line has recently been delayed again. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The project’s budget could reach $2.75 billion, mostly due to difficulties building a tunnel through the Minneapolis chain of lakes, which partly contributed to cracks in a nearby condominium complex converted from grain silos.

Although lawmakers have fumed at the Met Council, they are unsure what to do about the project. Failure to complete it would result in a massive bill from the federal government, as well as huge costs to untie what has already been completed.

Bills to transfer control of the project to the Minnesota Department of Transportation and kill it entirely are not included in either final transportation package. Nor is there a bill to elect members of the Met Council – they are currently appointed by the governor – or to abolish it altogether.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who has been a fierce critic of the Met Council, said in a March interview that there was some momentum for the idea of ​​electing the Met Council. “I think the conditions are met, the governor has indicated that he will sign [a] invoice [to elect the Met Council] if that happened to him, and enough people are frustrated,” Dibble said. He added, however, that this was probably not the year. “[But] if I had to count the votes today I would say no, but we are working on it.

The Senate has a measure to remove transport planning powers from the Met Council, as well as another to ban the state from spending on rapid bus and light rail projects.

The House rejected an amendment proposed by Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, to kill the Bottineau Light Rail Project, which would extend light rail to Brooklyn Park through North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale and Crystal.

The Met Council’s weak political hand could hamper the agency’s efforts to fund electric buses, priority transit signals, better shelters, fast bus routes and reduced summer fares. The Senate wants to end the often lambasted Northstar commuter rail service from Big Lake to Minneapolis, as the Met Council embarks a year-long study of how Northstar ridership has been affected by the pandemic. Northstar ridership fell over 90% at the start of the pandemic and has yet to fully recover.

The House again sought to decriminalize fare evasion, instead allowing an administrative citation. They say the criminal citation is rarely prosecuted and creates opportunities for racial profiling, while preventing police from stopping more serious crimes. Their proposal would also require the Met Council to report crimes that occur in the system to the legislature, as well as the number of citations they have issued for fare evasion. But that could continue to face opposition from the Senate.

(Disclosure: The author was once active in a group called the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union and once said “Abolish Metro Transit Police” at a 2018 Met Council meeting.)

The House and Senate would spend between $10 million and $14 million in 2021 under federal infrastructure law matching funds at MnDOT to support Minnesota’s largest transit agencies.

No gas tax the state needs it for the roads

Neither the House nor Senate transportation bill includes proposals for gas tax exemptions. Lawmakers such as Petersburg have said Minnesotans likely won’t see much benefit because gasoline taxes are collected at the wholesaler when he distributes gasoline to retailers, not at the pump.

In addition, a gas tax exemption would reduce funding for road maintenance, which is a bipartisan priority.

People travel down US Highway 53 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth. The Blatnik Bridge, which needs to be replaced, is visible in the background. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The Chamber proposes to allocate more than $633 million to design, build and maintain our national and local highways over the next two years, which includes repairing and replacing bridges, such as the Blatnik Bridge connecting Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin. The Senate is proposing to spend $1.1 billion in general funds and bond dollars, with most projects in the metro area. This includes $2 million for Trade Corridors, which funds highway expansions; $55 million to widen I-94 between Monticello and Albertville and add ramps to Highway 610 in Maple Grove; $43.5 million for two interchanges along I-35 in Lakeville and North Branch; $43 million to realign Highway 73 south of Cromwell; and $85 million to rebuild Highway 23 in Lyon and Pipestone counties.

House and Senate act on MnDOT recommendations to ensure trade money corridors are more evenly distributed across the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, advocates say critical the agency to allocate most prior credits to freeways within 50 miles of downtown Minneapolis.

The Senate also wants to cancel funds for Reconnect Rondo, who lobbied MnDOT to build a land bridge over I-94 in the historically black neighborhood, which was bisected during freeway construction in the 1960s.

With respect to electric vehicles, the Chamber wants to spend $6.8 million over the next two years to install charging stations, which will match the funding provided by the Federal Infrastructure Act of 2021. The Senate, on the other hand, does not want to allocate matching public funds. Both want EV charging stations built at rest areas, but the Senate wants to spend less Federal Infrastructure Act funds on EV chargers there, and wants stations along motorways are all online by November 2023.

The Chamber wants to convene a task force to study how to tax people who drive electric vehicles. The Senate would like increase electric vehicle registration fees to $229; create a new surcharge for plug-in hybrids, electric motorcycles and plug-in hybrid motorcycles; and index future changes to the two surtaxes to changes to the gasoline tax.

On the security front, the House and Senate want to crack down on speeding, which has increased since the start of the pandemic. Speeding contributed to 162 road deaths in 2021, a 33% increase from 2020, according to the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The House wants to allocate $2.5 million, part of which will fund a plan to deploy cameras to monitor speeders and convene a traffic safety council. The Senate wants to spend $45.5 million so the State Patrol can buy and maintain planes to patrol the highways.

On driver’s licenses, the House and Senate want to allow new residents of Minnesota to get a license without taking a written test if they have one from another state, joining states such as Minnesota. Oregon and Texas. The Chamber wants the DPS to study digital driver’s licenses. They also want to give free licenses to recently released prisoners, although that may face opposition in the Senate.

Not much for cycling and walking

The Legislature has little in store to improve cycling and walking, despite 67 cycling and pedestrian fatalities last year, up 18% from 2020. Additionally, more and more people are taking an interest in e-bikes amid rising gas prices, while the pandemic has also prompted more people to participate. in outdoor activities. Market research firm NPD Group reported e-bike sales have increased 47% in the 12 months to October 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

The House is proposing to spend $14.4 million on biking and walking, a portion of which will fund the state’s Safe Routes to Schools program, which helps kids bike and walk to school . The Senate also wants to fund Safe Routes to Schools, but only with an additional $1 million on top of the money already allocated last year.

The Senate also wants to provide an additional $4 million to schools and school bus companies to install cameras on school buses. This was first proposed last term after several incidents of students being hit by drivers.

Trains to Chicago and Duluth in the air

The Chamber is proposing to spend $51 million to design, engineer and build infrastructure for a passenger train between Minneapolis and Duluth. They’re also proposing to spend $740,000 in 2023 to pay for a second train from St. Paul to Chicago, which is currently served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder five days a week due to the city’s ongoing labor shortage. ‘business. The Senate wants to cut $500,000 that was allocated to intercity rail last session.