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Supporters push long-shot transportation package in Woodbury

Metropolitan Council Commissioner Harry Melander (District 12, Mahtomedi) spoke to attendees on March 18 at a transportation forum held at Woodbury Lutheran Church. (Staff photo by Mike Longaecker)

Proponents of a statewide transportation package made their case last week in Woodbury in the face of long odds that such an effort will make serious headway this session at the Capitol.

Still, the president of Twin Cities-based think tank Growth & Justice came to Woodbury Lutheran Church for a March 18 forum that focused on  MoveMN, the transportation finance package that would tap  multiple funding streams for new roads, bridges and transit projects.

“The needs are obviously there,” Growth & Justice President Dane Smith told about 50 people gathered at the meeting.

He outlined key provisions of the legislation, which lawmakers are considering this year. MoveMN would redirect the state’s leased-vehicle tax to highway and transit funding and would tack on a three-quarter cent increase to the seven-county metro sales tax for transit. The legislation also creates a sales tax on wholesale fuel and diverting federal funds toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

But unless two major groups give their blessing, it appears likely that MoveMN won’t be moving anywhere this session.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that in spite of its passage in a House committee on Thursday, the transportation finance package lacks “critical components” of a coalition needed to muster the political might to push it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

“Without the support of the business community and Republicans, a comprehensive transportation package will not progress any further this session,” Thissen said, singling out the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce as one of the key entities opposing the legislation.

Sen. Susan Kent, who was in attendance at last week’s Woodbury transportation forum, said she will do all she can to keep MoveMN’s momentum going this session. The Woodbury Democrat said she saw how an effort last session to keep transportation bonding projects alive led to passage.

“We’re making progress on roads now because we kept the conversation going,” Kent said. “I’m not saying it’s not going to be challenging.”

Opponents of the MoveMN effort say its tax increases are too much to bear for Minnesotans.

Bentley Graves, director of health and transportation policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said businesses first want to see the state stretch its dollars further. The Chamber threw its support behind a key veto override in 2008, but Bentley noted that support was contingent on the state developing efficiencies in transportation.

“We look at that as something that should be the first step,” he said. “If we can establish that as a goal … then we’ve laid a solid foundation for a discussion for increasing revenue.”

But Kent said widespread transportation problems around the state dictate the need for new tax dollars now.

“The magnitude of this problem is so much bigger than that,” she said of the Chamber’s call for efficiency.

Attendees at the forum, sponsored by the Stillwater-based River Valley Action group, heard from different presenters on various topics surrounding transportation issues in the east metro.

They included Metropolitan Council Commissioner Harry Melander (District 12, Mahtomedi), who argued in favor of increased transportation funding. He and others pointed out that Minnesota currently has one active light-rail line with another poised to go live soon.

Melander presented a slide depicting a vast transit network with squiggly lines representing the many transportation projects currently in play or proposed for development.

“This is what it should look like” Melander said.

Another presenter, Washington County Transit and Planning Manager Jan Luck, offered another slide. It depicted the nation’s major metro areas represented by sprouting lines depicting their respective transit lines.

She then pointed out Minnesota’s on the map.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Luck said.

Washington County has two transit projects in play: the 12-mile Gateway Corridor line connecting Woodbury with St. Paul’s Union Depot and the Red Rock Corridor, which links Hastings and St. Paul via high-speed transit.

Luck said the future of many transit projects hinge on their ability to garner state-level support in hopes of capturing the federal dollars needed to complete the financing.

“Current funding levels cannot be sustained,” Luck said.

The east metro, especially, has a difficult time garnering support in the face of competing requests from the more heavily populated west metro, Melander said.

“We need a unified voice in the east,” he said, adding that hopes are high for progress on Gateway, but “probably (proposed northwest metro line) Bottineau will be teed up.”

Smith agreed that east-metro transit projects won’t cultivate support on their own.

“The east metro in particular needs to get up on its hind legs,” he said.

Stillwater resident Judy Atkins was among attendees at the forum. She said she would like to see light rail extended to the east metro but noted that supporters will need to raise their voices.

“We all need to take some action,” Atkins said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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