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Transit board's breakup delayed by Dakota County objections

Washington County is caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

The county wants to dissolve its nine-year relationship with the Counties Transit Improvement Board , a buyers club of sorts formed to fund regional bus and light rail projects. Since 2008, each of the five counties in CTIB has kicked in proceeds from a quarter-percent sale tax and a $20 excise tax on vehicle retail sales.

The money was disbursed in the form of capital and operating grants to pay for current and future projects such as the Green Line light rail transit route between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Elected officials from three other member counties — Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey — also want to dissolve CTIB, because their transit projects could be jeopardized or delayed by lack of money from the state. Each county board could then raise the equivalent of the state share by doubling the quarter-percent sales tax, although Washington County leaders intend to keep the existing quarter-percent.

But the CTIB split won't happen without the consent of Dakota County, whose commissioners want a greater share of the unspent money from the CTIB pool.

All five counties must agree to disband. And they must do so by March 31 or be stuck with each other for at least another three months, due to a state law that requires new taxes be imposed at the beginning of each quarter.

Washington County officials are proceeding with their exit strategy even though a hold-out by Dakota County could scuttle the deal. They will conduct a public hearing March 21. Either way, they're proceeding with the two projects in the pipeline: the Gold Line bus-rapid transit route between St. Paul and Woodbury; and the Red Rock Corridor bus-rapid transit proposal from St. Paul to Hastings through south Washington County.

"I'm optimistic," Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham said. "I think dissolution is the right thing for regional transitways for the area. It's been a tough haul without the state being a partner and Washington County has projects coming up here with the Gold Line and Red Rock. I believe this is the best option to keep them on track and on time."

The standoff became official at a special meeting March 8 when CTIB members voted to dissolve.The two dissenting votes came from Dakota County commissioners Thomas Egan and Mary Liz Holberg.

Egan told CTIB chair and Hennepin County commissioner Peter McLaughlin that their board of commissioners wouldn't vote to approve the exit unless more money is forthcoming.

"Quite frankly, the board was pretty resolute about it," he said. They rejected an offer of $16.5 million and held out for $29 million.

Not going to happen, McLaughlin said.

"It's time for Dakota (County) to get off the number they've been on for weeks if we're going to get an agreement," he said.

But Holberg contended that Dakota County has contributed $122.4 million since forming CTIB. But they only got back nearly $52.9 million, which helped launch the Red Line bus-rapid transit route that runs from Apple Valley to the Mall of America in Bloomington.

McLaughlin said Dakota County would be on the hook for $12 million in debt service for the Red Line if its refusal kept CTIB together until the end of 2018. They would also lose the $16.6 million on the table as well an estimated $22 million in sales tax revenues — a total of $50 million.

"We never said everybody was going to get back exactly what they put in," McLaughlin said. "This is a regional benefit."

Washington County negotiated a higher settlement with McLaughlin. Their share of the CTIB wind-down distributions is now $7.5 million.

"I thought it was positive movement," said Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury. "I asked that if Dakota (County) got an increase, that Washington County get a proportionate increase because our community leaders and constituents would ask us why we didn't."

CTIB members were expected to meet again Wednesday, March 15, in St. Paul, but the dissolution issue was not on the agenda.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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