“What do we want? Fair prices! When do we want it? Now!” Kenya McKnight, Transportation Advisory Board member, led this chant on a rainy day that turned hot and sunny on the grounds of the State Capitol.
The Minnesota Legislature proposes deep cuts to Metro Transit bus and light rail funding. On May 16, transit riders from the community, as well as a few Metro Transit drivers, rallied at Leif Erickson Park by the University-Rice Street light rail station in a continuing effort to derail proposed transit fare increases. As many as 150-200 people attended the rally to support those who oppose transit hikes.
The rally was organized by the Transportation Forward Coalition (TFC), an organization combining a medley of community, health, business, environmental and labor groups. TFC is a firm believer that a “multi-faceted” approach to Minnesota’s transportation system is needed.
“We know that every day Minnesotans rely on transit to get to work, to get to school, and to live their lives,” said Jessica Treat, chair of Transportation Forward and executive director of Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips. “We also know that some in the Minnesota Legislature want to make that harder.”
Recently the House proposed a $120 million cut from regional transit, which would eliminate general funds by 2021, creating a deficit in metro transit funding. For this reason, metro transit proposed a 50 cent increase in funding while cutting services to 40 transit lines; it was not stated which specific lines would be cut.
Governor Mark Dayton did not support the proposal and vetoed the bill. As a compromise, proposed a half-cent sales tax for transportation, thus avoiding passing down the deficit to metro transit riders. Governor Dayton explained that the sales tax increase would help increase revenue so Metro Transit would not have to raise prices for its everyday customers.
“This is why I proposed the metro sales tax increase,” Dayton explained. “This is how we generate revenue for the expansion of bus service, rapid transit, and fund for Metro Mobility. The people are the majority here.”
“The governor is our goalie,” said Jennifer Munt, council member for District Three and director of Public Affairs & Public Policy. “We thank him for that. We need to tell him not to sign any more transportation bills unless he takes care of transit riders.”
Teresa Collins, better known to Metro Transit as driver 1378, has been driving busses for nearly 30 years and believes that increased fares would “devastate” her riders.
“Our passengers are predominantly people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income people making minimum wage, and struggling single mothers. How can we possibly ask our passengers to pay more money when most of them are barely making ends meet now?”
This hike would also affect the 50,000 students who depend on transportation to commute to and from school each day. “Me and my friends use the city bus because a lot of our parents do not have cars, and I don’t have my license yet,” said Sophia Manolis, South High School student and Sierra Club member.
The issue even has the attention and support of the church community. “We are all brothers and sisters in this fight,” said Pastor Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church in North Minneapolis. “Other pastors and I have been discussing how to support people in our community and the surrounding cities, as this could be devastating to all of us. I am here to show my support.”
The efforts however, did not stop there.
On the morning of Thursday, May 18, around 9:30 am, transit riders and supporters met with Governor Dayton to deliver 3,500 pro transit postcards declaring opposition to fair increases and service cuts. All of the cards were signed by Minnesotans in several counties across the state.
“To not fund transit is to not fund job growth,” said Lt. Governor Tina Smith. “That’s how people get to work, how people get to school, and it is fundamental to get to work. Keep the pressure on them.”
As individuals thanked Governor Mark Dayton for vetoing the bill, they expressed the need through personal stories about how they depend on Metro Transit for everyday living. Mark Lawson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1005 and a previous driver for 12 years, expressed how transit drivers would be affected as well.
“There are 2,500 of us at Metro Transit,” Lawson said. “It’s about jobs for us, too. They see us every day working hard, keeping the stations and buses clean. This is one of the most diverse workforces in state government; White folks like me are not the majority of drivers anymore. The efforts to increase diversity would be lost with these cuts.”
Transportation Forward continues its efforts for Governor Dayton to provide sufficient funding to maintain current Metro Transit service levels and current fares, along with increasing the current transportation budget. The efforts come just before the approaching legislative end-of-session negotiations underway for the May 22 adjournment.
Jessica Treat encourages supporters to keep up the fight and continue to push legislation. “We need to stand together to stop cuts to transit. That’s why we are here today. We are going to keep sending that strong message to the legislature and the governor.”
Ivan B, Phifer welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ivan B. Phifer is contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com