Will the DFL Miss the Bus on Transit Funding?

[The TC transit status quo.]
As anyone who rides the Twin Cities' transit system knows, you don't dawdle on your way to the bus stop. You don't tie your shoes slowly, shuffle your feet, or lollygag with old friends because if you miss that bus, there might not be another one for a long time. If only your DFL legislators took the bus regularly, they might understand that chances to invest in transit don't come along all that often, either.

When Governor Dayton was elected back in 2010, most people were excited (in an old-fashioned, lukewarm way). But, given the Scott Walker-esque Republican near-trifecta, I felt like I'd had a near death experience. At the time, I wrote:
The Minnesota Republican Party came within two microns of ending the DFL's 40-year reign as relevant policymakers in Minnesota, whisker-close to getting control of both State houses with an über-right Governor Emmer leading the way. This is what's known in policy circles as "The Trifecta", and basically means that (unless you're a DC Democrat) you can pass just about any legislation you damn well please.

That election was like jumping out of the way of Amy Senser's speeding SUV while trying to cross the street.

[Transit construction is painfully slow at the capitol.]
Now only two years later, we have the exact opposite situation: DFL control of all three branches at the state capitol (not to mention the defeat of two huge ballot measures). It was a rare opportunity for state Democrats to actually follow through on their values and ideals. It made me imagine all sorts of potential best-case scenario's for urban solvency. Even better, Governor Dayton kicked off this year's session with a special "blue ribbon commission" of transportation experts, all calling for transportation funding that emphasized transit investment. Normally world-weary transit advocates seemed downright optimistic, and I began dreaming of a legitimate Twin Cities transit map, one with "rapid" buses, traffic calming streetcars, and more than two trains. (You know, like a real city.)

[OTOH, the Governor loves puppies.]
Well, things have been a bit rough since then. As always, Governor Dayton has been his own worst enemy, chickening out on supporting his own well-reasoned tax proposals. First it was taxing expensive clothing, then business services. But most damaging, Dayton began publicly refusing to support his own commission's plan for a gas tax increase, which (almost) everyone agrees is the key to getting outstate votes for transit investment.

But DFL dissonance hasn't only been coming from the Governor. To my surprise, at least three DFL legislators from the Twin Cities have failed to support the main transit funding bills. At last count, no fewer than three Representatives from Minneapolis (Davnie, Mullery, and Loeffler) aren't supporting the transit funding plan. Given how much a decent transit system would improve both the quality of life and the economy in the core cities, that seems quite odd to me.*

Is There a Minneapolis Case Against Transit Funding?

Let's take one of the Minneapolis democrats as an example. Davnie represents the Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods of Minneapolis, and is a long-time veteran of the Minnesota House. No doubt he believes in transit. No doubt he believes in social justice and transportation equity.

But so far, he's not supporting the transit funding bill. Here are his reasons (as of two weeks ago):

1) The bill is a "moving target" + 1.5) The Governor's opposition.

In a recent post about this very issue on the Minneapolis e-demcoracy forum, Davnie explained himself on the transit funding question. He said there were too many different proposals, and it remains unclear which of them are funding which transportation packages. On top of that, he raises the issue of the Governor's waffling, suggesting that without unwavering leadership from the top, there was little hope of passage.

2) "It divides the state."

The second argument is about funding transit out of state-wide general fund dollars vs. with a metro regional (sales tax). Tax policy is important, and I agree we should strive to make it as equitable as possible. That was basically Governor Dayton's campaign platform in 2010, and it would be nice to follow through on those promises.** Still, asking someone in rural Minnesota to pay for a bus in Apple valley is a tough sell!

3) We're doing enough already

In his forum post, Davnie writes that transit funding increases in the general fund bill is fine. (Ironically in this case, these bills are called "omnibus.") The status quo proposal increases funding, he argues, and there are some policy changes that might help cities and other options (car sharing) fund their own solutions down the road.

On the first two points, Davnie makes some sense but fails to convince me. His first point about complexity seems a bit naive. Anyone who's spent enough time at the capitol must know how crazy the sausage making legislative process can become. Plus, he seems to forget that leadership can come from people other than the Governor. When the Senate passed the full transportation bill (including the gas tax) last week, they showed that Dayton's caution doesn't need to be the final word on the issue.

Likewise, the second argument seems to be one of those cases where (that horrible new cliché) "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Sure it would be great to fund a transit system with general fund (state-wide) dollars, in a non-regressive way using income taxes. It would also be great to reinstate LGA funds that would decrease (regressive) property taxes, institute state-wide health care for all, have background checks for gun buyers, and legalize same-sex marriage. You take what you can get. Within the broad spectrum of funding tools, the metro area sales tax falls somewhere in the middle of tolerability. (At least its not e-pulltabs!)

[Not only do you wait forever, you're bombarded with Scientology ads.]
Davnie's third argument, though, is really not acceptable. There's a generational change happening. Young and old people are shirking the car and looking for other choices. Transit funding not only benefits the poor, but represents a huge re-investment in the core cities. Developing actual transit options (i.e. buses that run faster than the #21, the #16, or the #5) will benefit places like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, making them economically resilient and making strides toward transportation equity.

Most people in my generation are very impatient with pace of progress in the Twin Cities. The first LRT was completed in 2004, and I'm going to have to wait another whole year to ride the second. Metro Transit's rapid bus proposals would be a game changer for a lot of people, as would more LRT lines, reliable bus funding. On the other hand, Davnie's tax reductions on car sharing companies, or local streetcar funding option are weak tea. At the current pace, the DFL legislature won't complete the Twin Cities' transit plan until I'm old and grey.

That's not good enough. Particularly in our partisan era, when party control flips faster than the Timberwolves' front office***, you have to seize every opportunity that comes along. You never know what might happen in the next election.

Same-sex marriage offers a good example. I wonder what the GOP geniuses who put the defense of marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot are eating for breakfast this morning? Listening to the DFL leadership at the beginning of the session, they were hedging about wanting to pass same-sex marriage this year. It was yet another example of DFL reluctance to do the right thing for wishy-washy political reasons. There often seems to be some excuse about process or strategy, and (again, like the Timberwolves), supporters are told "maybe next year. Don't worry, it's all moving along just fine."

Well screw that. As today shows, just doing the right thing feels way better.

And the same is true for actually making an investment in transit when you have a chance. Have you ever looked at a bus schedule and felt that sinking feeling when realizing the next one doesn't come for another hour?

There's a big vote on this tomorrow. Especially if you live in North or North-East Minneapolis, Longfellow or Seward (Davnie, Loeffler, and Mullery's districts), take a minute and email/call your legislator today. The pro-transit coalition is holding a rally tomorrow at the capitol to encourage them, and to offer a show of force for the upcoming negotiations, when transit funding will surely be one of the bargaining chips. (I don't normally go to these kinds of things, but am going to make an exception tomorrow...)

The DFL has a chance right now to invest in a legitimate Twin Cities' transit system. If they miss the opportunity, the next one might not come for a long time.

[This 2030 TC transit system won't happen until 2060 unless the DFL follows through tomorrow.]

* If I was a responsible blogger, I'd dig around more deeply to figure out why core city DFL'ers aren't backing transit funding. I might actually call one of them and talk to them or something. Oh well.
** On the other hand, the gas tax is one of the best ways to fund transportation. It's more of a user fee on cars. If only we could use gas tax money to fund transit, like they do in Europe.

*** Double pun!

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