By Gordy Moore
This week’s edition of The Mac Weekly is the very last of my college career, so it is fitting that in it I will discuss one of the central issues I’ve studied during my college career: transit and transit funding. To put it bluntly, Minnesota Republicans have drafted a bill that, if put into law, would be truly devastating to public transit in the Twin Cities. There’s no way around it.
The House Bill (HF 861) would result in a 40 percent cut to bus service across almost all of Metro Transit’s core service area — while increasing funding for some of the suburban transit providers who opted out of direct Metro Transit control in the past. All 151 of Metro Transit’s bus routes would be affected by the bill, either through reduced service or elimination. Specifically, 20-70 of the 151 routes could be eliminated. Weekend service on the Northstar commuter rail line to Big Lake would be cut entirely. Late night and early morning service on the Green and Blue light rail lines could even be cut, which would be a crippling blow to late night shift workers, who are often low-income and minority metro residents.
HF 861 would also cut general fund appropriations to regional transit by $120 million and would have the state exit its previous agreement to pay portions of the operating cost of light rail lines. Even more disturbingly, some language in the bill would essentially prohibit the construction of any new light rail lines in the future. The Minnesota GOP is hell-bent on killing the planned Green Line Extension (Southwest Light rail line) and is still actively trying to sink the project.
What, though, do Republicans in Minnesota say when challenged about their stances on transit? They say again and again that they want to provide funds for “efficient,” effective transportation projects that benefit everyone; they claim that they support bus funding above all else. Recently on Minnesota Public Radio, the Speaker of Minnesota’s House of Representatives Kurt Daudt said, “We don’t want to see funding/service for the [Metro Transit] bus lines reduced, because they’re the most efficient…” The logical question, then, is why Daudt and his caucus would spout falsehoods about preserving bus service if their bill would reduce it by 40 percent for millions of metro area residents.
Hammering this talking point home in a recent Minnpost opinion piece, Sen. David Osmek (R) — Mound termed light rail “…a boutique option that caters to a select few” while simultaneously asserting that “Bus Rapid Transit is a highly effective option that has wide support, including from me.” If Osmek really believed that BRT was a “highly effective option,” why would he support a bill that would reduce bus service? The cuts could affect the A Line’s rapid, frequent service, as all bus lines will be impacted.
The answer is clear. Republicans have no real desire to fund mass transit, much less support the expansion and strengthening of our network with capital investments. HF 861 also includes a 50-cent fare increase that would be detrimental to low-income riders, and yet, despite this drastic increase, the proposed cuts would still increase Metro Transit’s budget deficit to a staggering $125 million. The Minnesota GOP is playing a dangerous, two-faced game with transit funding, pitting rural and urban legislators against each other and claiming that light rail “caters to a select few.” Their two-faced position, which claims to support bus funding while introducing bills that would cut core bus service by almost half, is detrimental to the well-being of our metro region. It is painful for me to hear Sen. Osmek’s phrase “caters to a select few” in the context of light rail. Has Osmek ever ridden the Blue or Green lines? Has Osmek or Speaker Daudt ever actually ridden a city bus?
One thing is for darn certain: it is not a “select few” that light rail “caters to.” In contrast to personal cars, light rail service “caters” to the opposite of a “select few” by serving citizens of all backgrounds, races, abilities and income levels. Perhaps, though, Sen. Osmek is referring to another “select few.” Those too poor to afford a car. Those who have no driver’s license. People of differing abilities — hearing, vision or developmentally impaired. Children and families. Students. People who rely on the train every day to get to work. I wonder if Sen. Osmek knows that 80 percent of transit riders are traveling to work or school and that about 40 percent of workers in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul use transit.
Perhaps, from Sen. Osmek and Speaker Daudt’s perspective, everyone drives from their cozy homes in the suburbs or beyond wherever they please, and it is only a “select few” who ride the “boondoggle” trains and wasteful buses. But Metro Transit provided 82 million rides through their light rail, commuter rail and core bus service in 2016. Does that seem like a “select few”? The proposed cuts to Metro Transit, along with the stoppage of transit expansion, would hurt those most vulnerable in our communities the most. I ride transit a minimum of three days a week, often more, and it is painful to imagine how these cuts would further burden many. Not people traveling to Twins games a couple times a summer. Not the occasional rider to the State Fair.
These cuts, like so many other decisions made in the name of “efficiency” and “small government,” would hurt people of color, low-income people and people with disabilities. It is up to us, as Saint Paul residents, to speak up loudly against such detrimental measures.