Although they weren't willing or able to say how Minnesotans should pay for upgrading their roads, bridges and transit systems, three current and former state transportation officials on Wednesday hinted that future gas taxes might increase automatically with inflation, and buses could displace light-rail trains as the preferred form for expanding transit in the Twin Cities region.
During a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, state Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said a nickel-a-gallon increase in Minnesota's 28.5-cent gas tax, as some lawmakers have proposed, would not meet the state's need for a "long-term, strategic investment" in roads and bridges.
Nearly two years ago, a transportation advisory panel appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton called for raising the gas tax and other fees and taxes to raise $50 billion to improve roads and expand transit over the next 20 years to boost economic growth.
Zelle hinted that the gas tax might be indexed so it increases as the costs of constructing and maintaining roads rises.
"If the price of a gallon of gas goes from $3 to $4, no more money is going to the state" under the current fixed tax rate, he said after the panel discussion.
When the panel moderator, political science professor Larry Jacobs, asked him if Dayton would support a transportation tax increase next year, the commissioner replied, "I don't know."
While the governor supports "transportation investments" and is "very open and interested" in finding the money during the 2014 legislative session, he said it might take until 2015 to develop a comprehensive funding package.
A gas tax increase alone won't do it, he said. That tax provides less than half the state's transportation revenue now, and he suggested considering other sources, such as fees for license tabs and motor vehicle sales taxes and expanding toll-charging MnPass express highway lanes. He noted that other states are tapping general sales taxes to pay for transportation projects.
Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh had no doubts about where to find more money for more Twin Cities transit: The half-cent sales tax increase in the seven-county region that Dayton proposed last year. It passed the Senate but failed in the House. The governor and transit advocates are expected to revive that proposal next year.
While the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie has dominated the news, Haigh said bus rapid transit lines will play a bigger role in the region's future.
BRT vehicles that "mimic the experience of LRT trains" would move people faster and more efficiently than regular buses, she said.
They would have "signal priority" at stop lights and only stop at stations at one-mile intervals.
She envisions BRT lines on 10 key arteries — such as Snelling Avenue and West Seventh Street in St. Paul and Nicollet and Central avenues in Minneapolis — that are the "workhorses of the regular bus route system." Construction on the first line could start next year.
Haigh's predecessor, former Met Council Chair Peter Bell, strongly endorsed BRT.
"It doesn't have the sizzle that LRT does, but it doesn't have the costs that LRT does," said Bell, a senior fellow at the Center for the American Experiment. "I think economics will force us to look at BRT much closer."
He predicted fast buses would replace trains on the proposed Bottineau Transitway from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, the next light-rail project planned after the Southwest Corridor is completed. One reason to switch to buses, he said, is Dakota and Washington county officials would push back against spending $1 billion on Bottineau corridor trains while south and east metro transit needs languish.
Bell also sees a slim chance DFLers and Republicans could agree to increase funding for transportation.
"It is one of the very few spaces in our political discourse where there is a shot — and I'm only going to say a shot — at coming to some level of common ground," he said.