Washington County likely to remain in transit tax consortiumWashington County appears set to remain a member of a metro area transit funding board following a tense Board of Commissioners workshop on Tuesday.
By: Jon Avise, Woodbury Bulletin
Washington County appears set to remain a member of a metro area transit funding board following a tense Board of Commissioners workshop on Tuesday.
Commissioners Autumn Lehrke, who represents south Washington County, and Bill Pulkrabek, who represents Oakdale and a portion of Woodbury, have said they want the county to withdraw from the Counties Transportation Improvement Board (CTIB), which pools millions of dollars in revenue from a quarter-percent sales tax to help fund mass transit projects across five Twin Cities counties.
A staunch opponent of the tax, Pulkrabek last month pushed for a formal vote on the county’s participation, which passed narrowly in 2008 with only one current board member — Forest Lake’s Dennis Hegberg — voting to join CTIB.
But at a board workshop reviewing CTIB on Tuesday, Hegberg and fellow commissioners Gary Kriesel and Lisa Weik, of Woodbury, defended Washington County’s CTIB involvement and challenged Pulkrabek and Lehrke to find another funding mechanism for major proposed transit projects like the Red Rock Corridor commuter rail line through Newport and Cottage Grove, and the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 through Woodbury and Oakdale.
“Do we want to raise property taxes to fund transit?” Kriesel, the board’s chair asked other commissioners. “Throw up your hands — I don’t see any. Because that’s the alternative.”
Washington County collects about $4.8 million annually from the quarter-percent sales tax, and is guaranteed $2.7 million annually, through 2013, for local projects.
“It’s a bad deal for Washington County,” Pulkrabek said.
So far, county transportation planners have used that funding on things like the purchase of a former Knox Lumber property in Newport for development as a park and ride and future commuter rail station along the Red Rock line from St. Paul to Hastings, and expanded bus service from Forest Lake to St. Paul.
But beginning in 2014, the county must compete for CTIB grants. Though county planners expect to receive large chunks of funding for the Gateway and Red Rock corridor, Lehrke cautioned that Washington County “isn’t guaranteed a dime.”
She didn’t offer another way to fund the huge planned investments in transit that city officials from Cottage Grove, Newport and St. Paul Park last week lobbied county commissioners to seek. Instead, Lehrke said Washington County should not plan to spend so heavily on transit and should lobby Metro Transit to run more express buses to the southeast metro.
If it were to back out of CTIB, the county would still pay into the tax for three years, and would be responsible for paying off its roughly $8 million in bonds issued by the five-county consortium last year.
“If all the sudden Washington County says we’re not going to follow through on Red Rock and the Gateway Corridor,” Kriesel said, “we’re throwing a lot of people under the bus.”