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Washington, other counties may blaze their own transit funding route

Frustrated with a lack of state transit funding, Washington and four other counties are expected to dissolve their nine-year transit partnership Friday.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) includes elected officials from Washington, Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Since 2008, CTIB members helped pay for transit projects with shared revenue from a quarter-percent sales tax and a $20 excise tax on vehicle retail sales.

Dissolving their joint powers agreement would give each county the discretion to double the sales tax. With state funding up in the air, it's a more reliable revenue source, officials said.

There would be no sales tax increase in Washington County, however, Commissioner Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove said.

"I look at this as a transfer of power," Bigham said. "From the relationship with CTIB back to the county, where we can control the funds."

The official termination of the joint powers agreement wouldn't take effect until later this month, after which the county would simply reimpose the same quarter-percent sales tax March 28, at the end of a three-week public comment period. All counties must agree to terminate the joint powers agreement.

The county has collected an estimated $51 million in sales tax through CTIB.

Money from CTIB helped 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 proposed Gold Line bus 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.

But these projects also depend on the state for approximately 10 percent of their total cost. And future state transportation funding, including for transit projects, has become uncertain at the Legislature.

The counties can't afford costly delays to transit projects due to the lack of the state share, CTIB Chairman and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. Washington County's guaranteed funds since 2008 was $12.9 million.

Once they exit CTIB, the county would be able to use money from the new sales tax to pay for a greater variety of projects, such as roads and bridges, which is not allowed under the CTIB statute.

CTIB is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. March 3 at 90 W. Plato Blvd., St. Paul.

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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