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Minnesotans Ready for Transit, Aren't Buying the Bashing

September 13, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Transit-bashing is a favorite parlor game of anti-tax conservatives, but the evidence is growing that most Minnesotans aren't buying it.

To hear the self-appointed critics say it, buses, streetcars, and trains soak up taxpayer subsidies even though hardly anyone rides them. And, gosh, there's something vaguely communist about traveling in a large, energy-efficient passenger vehicle side-by-side with a bunch of strangers.

Bunk, majorities of Minnesotans from all regions of the state are saying in public opinion surveys. And although the state's public transit options remain severely limited compared with other areas, increasing numbers of Minnesotans are voting with their feet by hopping on board.

Last year Metro Transit counted 73.8 million trips, a 22-year high. Ridership on the Hiawatha Line, Minnesota's only light-rail route, surged 20 percent in 2006 to 9.4 million. In response, the Metropolitan Council will add three light-rail cars in March to the Hiawatha's original fleet of 24 and increase service to 12 two-car trains each rush hour period.

"The public's appetite for rail service continues to grow," says Brian Lamb, Metro Transit general manager.

And it's not just in the Twin Cities area that transit is booming. Greater Minnesota's far-flung minibus services logged 350,000 more trips in 2005 than the year before as rural residents found convenient connections to distant jobs, pharmacies and grocery stores.

But the strongest proof that the right wing's anti-transit message is falling on deaf ears comes from polls that have repeatedly shown broad, deep support for buses and trains - even to the point of paying higher taxes for them.

An April 2007 survey of 625 Twin Cities residents conducted by Decision Resources Inc. (headed by former state Republican Chairman Bill Morris) for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy found nearly 2-to-1 backing for a metro area half-cent sales tax to fund transit only. Even majorities of Republicans and suburbanites voiced support.

The sales-tax-for-transit concept also was the big winner in the poll among several other transportation revenue proposals, while a majority of respondents were opposed to most other options.   Of the others, only a 5-cent-a-gallon hike in the gasoline tax dedicated to roads and bridges eked out 51 percent support. Meanwhile, 85 percent of respondents backed increased transit funding from the state and saw a network of light rail and commuter rail lines as a solution to highway congestion.

People who try transit like it even better, according to a 2006 Metro Transit survey that registered satisfaction by 94 percent of bus riders and 96 percent of Hiawatha patrons. The survey also found that, if transit were not available, half of the train riders and more than a third of bus riders would drive alone, further clogging highways.

And Greater Minnesota's support for transit came through loud and clear in a September 2004 poll of 819 registered voters statewide conducted by Tunheim Partners and KV Systems for the Itasca Project and the Center for Environmental Advocacy.

More than two-thirds of outstate respondents (69 percent) chose support for public transit as the best way to address traffic congestion over a five-year span, compared with 63 percent in the metro area. Longer-term, rural Minnesotans preferred transit to highways 57 percent to 18 percent, again more strongly than their metro cousins (48 percent for transit, 18 percent for roads).

In the same survey, 73 percent of statewide respondents said they would approve of increased funding for light rail, commuter rail and additional highway lanes, but more felt strongly about the transit options than the new lanes. And fully 91 percent of respondents backed increased funding for both roads and transit, a level of support equal to that for public schools and greater than for health care.

Why do folks from outside the Twin Cities support transit so strongly? In some ways, the situation parallels the new Minnesota Twins ballpark, a big-city amenity that will be enjoyed by all Minnesotans but paid for by a sales tax levied only in Hennepin County. Polls show that a metro-only sales tax for transit would win wide acceptance from rural Minnesotans who hate and fear driving in Twin Cities traffic.

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