ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Metro Transit is bracing for cutbacks in state aid based on developments at the State Capitol, and starting to examine fare increases to preserve basic bus services.
The House version of the transportation finance bill would chop $120 million from direct state funding, while the Senate version would slice $76 million.
"With a cut that large we'd have to get rid of some routes, we'd have to look at paring some back and reducing the frequency of trips, so it would really hurt our customers," Adam Duininck, the Chair of the Metropolitan Council, told KARE.
Both transportation bills would allow Metro Transit to replace part of the money with county sales tax revenue that was intended for transit expansion, rather than basic operating expenses.
"If you’re a county board member who took a vote to raise your own sales tax, you did it with a plan to add some projects and to pay for some of those projects," Duininck explained.
"And now you’re taking money that they voted to raise, and you’re spending on something completely different, I think that raises all kinds of issues and concerns."
Bus ridership has been on the rise in recent years, and the same goes for the existing Blue Line and Green Line light rail trains.
But Metro Transit is losing money on Metro Mobility, the subsidized shuttle ride service program for persons with disabilities that have trouble using buses and trains.
Patty Thorsen of St. Paul said Metro Mobility has helped her stay active during her retirement.
"I'm able to volunteer. I help nonprofit organizations to be able to do the work they need to do," Thorsen explained.
She used regular buses to get to her job at West Publishing, known now as Thomson Reuters, for 25 years.
"I never drove. And thanks the Metro Transit I was able to get to classes to earn my master's degree in Library Sciences," she explained.
But the combination of cerebral palsy, epilepsy, tremors and arthritis in her hip caused her to be more reliant on a wheelchair, and in 2011 she became a regular Metro Mobility customer.
"What people need to keep in mind is that none of us is guaranteed that we will wake up tomorrow morning with the same abilities we have tonight," Thorsen remarked.
"I’ve had disabilities all my life, but I’ve gained some throughout my life that have completely changed the way I lived. And it doesn’t take way our talents and abilities to contribute to society."
The rides, at $4 for peak periods and $3 for non-peak hours, actually cost $25 more to provide, according to Metro Transit. But the agency can't make major cutbacks to Metro Mobility, because its under both state and federal mandates to provide the service.
"These are as much a human service program as they are a transit program," Duininck explained.
"We’ve been trying to make the argument at the Legislature maybe there’s a different way to fund it through Health and Human Services dollars as much as through transportation dollars."
Some would question why the state is making cutbacks when a hefty $1.65 billion surplus is projected for the 2018-2019 biennium.
One reason is that the Republican majority wants to use $1.35 billion of the surplus for targeted tax cuts.
They also want to take $450 million that currently goes to the General Fund and dedicate it strictly to roads and bridges. They're also looking to increase aid to E-12 public schools by $273 million.
All of that added together will exceed the projected surplus, so they're looking for other places to cut spending.
By cutting aid to Metro Transit, GOP lawmakers meet another objective of indirectly starving the Southwest Light Rail Transit project of local funding. If Metro Transit is forced to tap into county sales tax revenue for basis operations that money won't be available to help pay the cost of designing and building the SW LRT project.
"There are many in region who think we’re doing great things, and want to know how can we do them better and in more places?" Duininck explained.
"Meanwhile there are kind of just a few at the Legislature who fundamentally and philosophically disagree with the light rail, and they’re trying to usurp those dollars and use them for something else."
Duininck himself is a lightning rod for Republicans at the State Capitol who have spoken out against Gov. Mark Dayton's decision to make the Metro Council chair a full-time position for the first time.