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Twin Cities regional transit board might dissolve

Washington County and its four partners in a regional transportation co-op took one of the first steps toward disbanding.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) on Jan. 18 voted 8-3 in favor of a preliminary resolution to dissolve their organization, which also comprises elected officials from Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Washington County Commissioner and CTIB member Lisa Weik stressed that the split is not a done deal.

"We need to give staff some direction," she said. "A lot of this is very detailed. It's going to take a lot of time. It would be an ambitious change if it's going to happen."

CTIB was formed in 2008 to help pay for the planning and engineering of major transit projects such as the Green Line light rail transit route between Minneapolis and St. Paul; the Gold Line proposed rapid transit route between St. Paul and Woodbury; and the Red Rock Corridor bus rapid transit proposal from St. Paul to Hastings through south Washington County.

All five member counties contribute to the transit funding pool with money generated by a quarter-percent sales tax and a $20 excise tax on vehicle retail sales.

But these projects also depend on the state for approximately 10 percent of their total cost. And state transportation funding has become uncertain because of an ongoing stalemate at the Minnesota Capitol, where Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton, do not have agreement with Republicans, who now control the Legislature.

CTIB Chair and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said they can't wait any longer for the state to come through.

"There are a number of projects across the region that are ready to go forward but for the state's 10 percent contribution," McLaughlin said. "A solution to that would be for counties to use existing law to essentially eliminate the state's 10 percent share of the project. It's a small share of these projects but it's holding them up."

He cited similar approaches in transit Dallas, Phoenix and Denver.

Weik agrees with that assessment.

"The state share has resulted in costly delays and that doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon," she said.

If CTIB is dissolved, the five counties would no longer collect the quarter-percent sales tax. But they would then each have the option of imposing their own sales tax of up to a half-percent. They could spend that money on a greater variety of projects, such as roads and bridges, which is not allowed under the CTIB statute.

Weik stressed that the Washington County Board would not raise the sales tax, however. It could consider re-imposing the same quarter-percent sales tax after CTIB was dissolved. There would be a public comment period before any action was taken.

"We can fund the state's share under the current quarter cent tax," Weik said. "It would be invisible to the public. It would be invisible to business owners and shoppers. Nothing would change."

The only difference is that those sales tax receipts would now stay in Washington County, she said.

"We would not be pooling our tax receipts with those four other member counties," she said.

The deadline for the dissolution is April 1; the Minnesota Department of Revenue will only terminate a sales tax or impose a new one on the last day of a quarter. All five counties must agree to dissolve the joint powers agreement for CTIB to be dissolved.

The Washington County Commissioners discussed the matter at a Jan. 17 workshop. One option on the table is for CTIB to be reorganized, with Washington County and the Metropolitan Council as the only members. But Commissioner Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove expressed reservations about this approach because of the possible costs of dissolving the reorganized CTIB when the time came.

"I don't want to be the only one left in CTIB holding the strings," she said.

Last June, the Dakota County Board voted to leave CTIB because officials said they weren't getting a fair return on their investment.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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