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County staff recommends transit-tax funds go to bus routes, I-94 study

The first fruits of the county's quarter-cent sales tax increase should be allocated to two commuter bus routes from Forest Lake and one transit study.

Those were the staff recommendations given to Washington County commissioners last week during a board workshop on how to spend the $950,000 in funds to be distributed to the county via the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB).

Washington County is among five Twin Cities metro counties that formed CTIB earlier this year in an effort to raise more local money, via sales tax increase, to fund transit projects.

At the Tuesday, Dec. 2 workshop the board did not make any formal decisions regarding the staff recommendation, but heard from staff on how the money, which the county is slated to officially receive in 2009, should be spent.

The county board will formally discuss the issue and likely vote on the recommendations at the Tuesday, Dec. 16 board meeting.

Staff recommended that $278,000 be used to fund the Forest Lake-to-Minneapolis bus service for 2009. The county would also use $118,050 to help create a new commuter bus service from Forest Lake to St. Paul. The funding would be allocated to both bus routes with the expectation that the Metropolitan Council would fund the lines in future years, after Forest Lake has entered into the metropolitan transit taxing district.

The more than half million remaining from the $950,000 would fund a transit study of the I-94 corridor in the East Metro, said county administrator Jim Schug.

The study would analyze whether there are identified alternative transit needs along the corridor, Schug said.

"It could tell us about possible ridership, alignment and what mode of transit would be appropriate," he said.

County officials have been talking about the study for more than a year, and the staff-recommended CTIB funding from the five-county sales tax increase would make up more than half the $1 million cost to perform the study. Communities such as Woodbury, Oakdale, Lakeland and Lake Elmo have been in discussions with Washington County officials over contributing funds to the study and have discussed the possibility of forming a joint-powers agreement to apply for state funds for the study.

Schug said funds for the provided via CTIB would be "an excellent starter" for the effort to perform the I-94 transit study.

"The hope is that it could eventually be designated as a federal project that we would eventually be able to use partial federal funds to build the eventual transit service along the corridor," Schug said.