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Commissioners blast House proposal to siphon transit money

Washington County commissioners volleyed criticism Tuesday at legislation advancing in the Minnesota House that would redirect millions of dollars from a sales tax for new light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit projects to cover deep cuts to existing bus service in the Twin Cities.

Commissioners panned a plan that would divert $69 million over two years collected from a quarter-cent sales tax that was enacted as part of the five-county Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), of which Washington County is a member.

The bill, which passed the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee with Republican support Monday night, would siphon CTIB funds to make up for more than $50 million in general fund cuts to the Metropolitan Council's bus operations.

County commissioners likened that move to robbery on Tuesday in Stillwater, and said it threatens planned transit projects like the Gateway Corridor through Woodbury and the Red Rock Commuter Rail Line through south Washington County.

"It's almost like they're trying to kill transit," Commissioner Gary Kriesel said of lawmakers pushing the legislation. "And this is the best way to do it."

The board directed staff to research the impacts of the House plan, and to explore the ramifications of exiting CTIB. Commissioner Lisa Weik, who represents much of Woodbury in District 5, said the move was meant as a message to lawmakers that the county would not continue to levy a sales tax to fund a Metropolitan Council-run service.

Weik testified against the proposal at a hearing of the House Transportation Committee Monday.

"It's a message," she said. "It's a shot across the bow."

Board members have not been unanimous in support of Washington County's participation in CTIB, however.

Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents District 4 in south Washington County, used the threat posed by the House plan to urge her fellow board members to reconsider leaving the consortium. The bill, Lehrke said, raises "a red flag about possibly getting out of CTIB."