A Higher Sales Tax for Trains?

Written by Jeff Johnson on February 17, 2013. Posted in General

Board supports Dayton’s transit tax increase

The county board voted 6 – 1 this week to support Governor Dayton’s proposed 1/4 percent dedicated metro sales tax increase to further fund light rail, streetcar and bus systems in the seven-county metro area.  I was the “no” vote.

I have long questioned the wisdom and return on investment of light rail and commuter rail projects in the Twin Cities and believe it would be beneficial to the residents of Hennepin County if others on the board occasionally questioned their ROI, as well.  That’s not to say that I would never support a rail project, but rather would need to be convinced that the congestion relief it would provide would be even remotely commensurate with the tremendous price tag attached to the project – both to build it and to heavily subsidize its operation year after year.  But that’s a different blog posting…

Suffice it to say, I’m still skeptical until someone shows me otherwise.

My questions about rail, however, aren’t the primary reason for my opposition to the Governor’s transit tax increase.  My biggest concern is that,  whatever amount of money is raised, it won’t solve any problem – it will simply never be enough.  Just a few years ago, the legislature allowed metro counties to increase their sales tax by 1/4 percent in order to help solve the transit funding “crisis.”  Hennepin County, and four other large metro counties, chose to implement that tax increase.  Almost immediately, the entity created to spend the new tax money (the Counties Transit Improvement Board) spent in excess of the revenues from the tax and started borrowing money to fund projects.  Now we’ll raise the tax again and within a few years we will be back in a funding crisis – guaranteed.

On top of that, I look at the Governor’s proposed spending priorities for this new tax money and I’m not convinced most of my constituents in western Hennepin will be all that interested.  Projects like a light rail line from the east metro into Wisconsin and a network of streetcars in Minneapolis (because it would be much cooler than the tired old bus system that already exists) are probably not the types of spending projects for which most of my constituents would be eager to pay higher taxes.

And yet on top of that, the taxpayers of Hennepin County are getting absolutely pummeled with new taxes from every possible direction right now.  We increased the property tax levy in Hennepin County this year (as did many cities in the county).  We saw huge tax increases at the federal level as of January 1 – with potentially much more to come very soon.  And this particular tax increase is just a miniscule part of the gargantuan menu of increases being sought by Governor Dayton – increases on every single Minnesota taxpayer, not just the “rich” Minnesotans we all apparently so love to hate.

Combine all of those factors, and there was simply no way for me to justify the Governor’s new transit tax on my constituents.

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