All aboard: Commissioners may back continued transit taxA Washington County Board that once was sharply divided over collecting a sales tax for transportation projects now does not want to swerve off that track. A vote that would confirm that is expected Tuesday.
A Washington County Board that once was sharply divided over collecting a sales tax for transportation projects now does not want to swerve off that track.
Commissioners said they support staying in a five-county regional transportation group that is funded by a local sales tax, even though it could be several years before the county sees a significant influx of funds for local transit projects.
In 2008, the Washington County Board voted 3-2 to enact the quarter-percent sales tax and commissioners approved the county’s membership in the Counties Transit Improvement Board, known as CTIB.
Debate about the county’s future participation in CTIB has come to a head as the regional group considers borrowing $110 million to cover a budget shortfall for at least three years. The bonds, which would support projects outside Washington County, would be repaid with the transit-dedicated sales tax revenue from the participating counties.
The County Board is expected to vote Tuesday on a resolution supporting the borrowing.
Washington County’s share of the bond repayment is about $5.5 million, or slightly more than what it pays in annually to the transit program.
“We’re at the gate that we all knew was coming,” Commissioner Gary Kriesel said. “Do you go through the gate or do you stay in this?”
Kriesel said transit improvements require long-term commitment. The bonding payment would not directly help to fund local projects, but Washington County later will need the “deep pockets” of other CTIB counties, including Hennepin, to fund big-ticket projects in the east metro, he said.
A CTIB plan shows that there will be funding beginning in 2014 for the Interstate 94 corridor in Woodbury and the Red Rock corridor in south Washington County. In 2017, the CTIB program is projected to contribute $77 million annually for four year for transit improvements along I-94 through Woodbury. The budget suggests that would fund a light-rail transit line, but the type of transit system has not been finalized.
Commissioner Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove, the board’s most vocal transit supporter, said the county does not have a choice but to stay with CTIB.
“We have to invest in the future,” she said. “We have to invest in economic development.”
Peterson said the county cannot back out and expect to get regional funding for major transit upgrades years from now.
“If you’re not going to be at the table, you’re not going to get any toys to play with,” she said.
Peterson will not have a role in County Board decisions on CTIB funding after this year. She lost her recent re-election bid last week.
Commissioner Dennis Hegberg of Forest Lake said “I’m still on board” with CTIB. A Metropolitan Council growth plan indicated that roads alone will not accommodate future traffic and that transit will be needed, he said.
Even Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, who opposed the sales tax and CTIB participation, said he is “leaning toward” supporting continued county involvement.
The county would be required to help pay off the planned $110 million in borrowing even if commissioners decided to back out. Also, it must continue collecting the local sales tax for up to 48 months even if commissioners vote to get out of the CTIB program.
A decision by CTIB members on the bonding plan is expected later this month.
Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury, who campaigned in 2008 against the CTIB participation, said business owners she talked to during her recent re-election campaign “seemed resigned to collecting (the sales tax).”
Business owners did say that if the county is going to continue in CTIB, it should get the greatest return possible on taxpayers’ investment, she said.