The real roots of the transit strike

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March 22, 2004 // UPDATED 10:21 am - April 25, 2007
By: Terrell Brown
Terrell Brown

Letting communities opt out of the bus system weakens our chance to develop a transit network for the 21st century

What should we have learned from the bus strike?

Hint: It has nothing to do with labor relations.

What we should have learned is that we do not have a metropolitan area system of public transportation. Now, if you're a lieutenant governor or commissioner of transportation who wants to take the bus Downtown from your home in Chaska, that may be a temporary good thing.

Yes, your bus and some others from some far suburban areas still run. That's why on Day 1 of the strike you still saw those black suburban busses on the streets of Downtown.

Why? Long ago we had a Metropolitan Transit Commission that operated our busses. The MTC was financed by a property tax. In a moment of weakness, the decision was made to allow communities at the end of the line to opt out of the transit district if they felt they weren't being adequately serviced. Many outlying communities did opt out. Opting out was the mother of the black buses.

Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Transit Commission no longer exists. The Minnesota Legislature, in their collective wisdom, did away with it. The functions of the MTC were moved to the Metropolitan Council, establishing Metropolitan Council Transit Operations. Yes, they moved the operations of a bus system to a state planning agency.

The MTC's elimination also eliminated its funding source. Met Council relies on a legislative appropriation to fund its operations, including the operation of the bus system. No more property tax. Gone is the reason that had been used to justify the opt-out.

This collection of bus systems greatly reduces the political pressure to settle the strike since much of our two and a half million metro-area residents live outside the area served by MTCO. This results in a bus system that holds as much interest for the metro area as a Stillwater teachers' strike would in Minnetonka.

Why do we have a planning agency running the bus system? The Council itself is a part-time collection of gubernatorial appointees who collect a salary of $20,000 a year. One member, Annette Meeks, has a day job at Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, where she authored a document proposing elimination of the Council to which she was appointed to serve.

Does anyone see a conflict? A Metro Council features at least one member who has been honest enough to say she thinks it shouldn't exist. The Council serves at the pleasure of a governor who would rather build roads than fund public transportation, thinks too much money is spent in Minneapolis and isn't particularly fond of labor unions. It's certainly a recipe for a number of things, none of which is very good.

It's past time that we develop a system to manage the 21st century metropolitan area rather than the collection of governments that date to the 1800s. We need to look after the entire area, not just individual pockets. Our transit system is just one example.

Meek's objection to the Council included the fact that it is appointed. Simply electing the Council is an easy solution. It's also a solution that the Legislature attempted to implement. Unfortunately, the solution suffered a veto by the governor.

We should develop the political will for a truly metropolitan transit system. Mass transit is better for the environment and saves on road construction costs. It's also the only transportation some people can afford or have the physical capability to use.

The transit strike taught us another lesson, in this case a reminder. Nicollet Mall is rather pleasant without any traffic. City Hall needs to develop it as a true pedestrian mall and move the buses to parallel streets. Next time, let's get the transit strike scheduled for the summer when we can enjoy outdoors on the mall.

Terrell Brown lives in Loring Park. He can be reached at Terrell@terrellbrown.org. Letters to the editor should be sent to dbrauer@skywaynews.net, or by fax to 825-0929, or by mail to 1115 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapols, MN 55403.