Transit proposal irks local officials
Shannon Fiecke of the Shakopee Valley News reports:
On her drive down Como Avenue one day, St. Paul legislator Alice Hausman noticed a slew of coach buses from Southwest Transit.The DFL state representative called to find out what was going on — and was told the suburban transit provider, which offers express bus service to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, had decided to park its buses at the State Fair lot during the day to save money.
What Southwest Transit viewed as a tremendous savings (more than $30,000 per month), Hausman saw as a sign of system inefficiency, given that Southwest — like other suburban “opt-out” bus services, such as BlueXpress in Shakopee and Prior Lake — isn’t part of the same system as the larger Metro Transit.
“All those big beautiful coaches sit unused all day because they’re not part of a coordinated transit system,” she said.
Hausman is pushing legislation that would eliminate suburban control of bus services (as well as Metro Transit’s) by folding all transit providers into one statewide entity. Hearings on her proposal are expected this fall, before the Legislature convenes, and the topic has also been selected for study by the state legislative auditor.
Scott County Commissioner John Ulrich of Savage — who has his hand in transportation-related issues — told fellow commissioners recently that Hausman is on a mission to eliminate transit opt-outs like BlueXpress — and they need to be on guard.
“We provide very efficient, excellent service,” he said.
Hausman says she doesn’t want to take bus service away from the suburbs, but make it equitable — so those living in one part of the Twin Cities aren’t paying toward a higher level of service elsewhere.
“Huge inequities” have built up across the metro, she said, pointing out higher subsidy figures for suburban riders, their nice coach buses and Southwest Transit’s “Cadillac” station in Eden Prairie, which is heated and cooled and has a TV. Meanwhile, Metro Transit passengers who stand at Cleveland and Grand avenues don’t even have a bus shelter, she said.
But others view her proposal as a power grab to take away what suburban providers have worked so hard to build.
“The transit system here gets pretty darn high marks,” said Carver County Commissioner Tom Workman, a former Republican legislator. “They [others] want this common denominator stuff.”
Communities in the southwest metro were allowed to “opt-out” of the metro bus system originally, Ulrich and others say, because even though they were paying property taxes into the system, they weren’t being served adequately. (Since then, the major funding mechanism has switched from property taxes to the motor vehicle sales tax, although a special metro taxing district levies for capital projects, including park-and-rides and buses.)
“They robbed the suburban area for years and decades shamelessly,” Workman said, “and now that suburbs are standing up on their hind legs, they want more of our money to help with their ‘abyss.’”
Southwest Transit CEO Len Simich said he implemented a plan that turned Southwest Transit from an agency with negative customer feedback into one of the fastest-growing systems in the country that is recognized nationally. Until recently, its ridership was climbing by double digits every year.
Southwest Transit worked hard for its success, Simich said, and aggressively went after grant funds by showing the federal government exactly how certain steps would increase ridership.
“We didn’t get there with the help of Alice Hausman,” Workman said. “We got there on our own.”
Money for buses and light rail comes from a variety of sources, including the motor vehicle sales tax, fares and state and federal funds distributed by the Metropolitan Council.
According to the state legislative auditor, there are 24 transit systems in the Twin Cities area, including Metro Transit, the largest provider, which is operated by the Met Council. While express bus services like BlueXpress and Southwest Transit — which serves Chanhassen, Chaska and Eden Prairie — get part of their funding through the Met Council, they are independently run.
Suburban providers feel under attack from Hausman, a legislator who is perceived to have considerable clout when it comes to transit. They also believe they are getting the short end of the stick from the Met Council when it comes to funding.
The Met Council will be withholding operating dollars from Southwest Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority to help plug holes in the regional transit system, primarily to cover Metro Transit’s deficit.
Forecasting tough times ahead, Southwest Transit reduced services and its staff size the last couple years to put its operation in a healthy position, Simich said. While he is OK with using a portion of its reserves to help shoulder the economic downturn, Simich believes his agency is being asked to carry too much of the burden and is being penalized for doing the “right thing,” when others weren’t planning ahead.
BlueExpress has had difficulty getting the buses it was supposed to get from the Met Council, and recently rejected two of three used buses it was finally offered because they were too old, Shakopee Community Development Director Michael Leek said.
Local officials have also complained about a push by the Met Council to standardize regional services and make buses look similar.
In one spat — noted by Hausman — Minnesota Valley Transit Authority wanted the Met Council to reupholster seats with the MVTA logo. Metro Transit wouldn’t budge, so MVTA (which serves Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Rosemount and Savage) did it themselves, she said.
“Though you and I pay for it, they get to make the decision and reupholster it anyway,” she said.
To build ridership, Simich said Southwest Transit must tailor its service to “choice riders,” who have other options for getting downtown.