ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House on Friday approved a transportation bill that majority Republicans say will fund much-needed repairs to roads and bridges.
The nearly $2.2 billion legislation passed by a vote of 76-54 largely along party lines. Republicans said the plan puts money toward projects that sorely need it after the lack of a transportation bill in past years.
Democrats criticized it as short-sighted, and said it depends too much on short-term cash from the general fund and debt instead of using dedicated funding sources. Many Democrats favor raising the gas tax, currently at 28½ cents per gallon.
In Friday's floor session, they accused Republicans of favoring rural interests over urban, and noted that one GOP argument against funding light rail expansion was that the money would be better spent on buses.
"This bill proves that is a lie," said Democratic Rep. Michael Nelson. "You are increasing funding for rural transit, but you are cutting the core metro bus service by 40 percent."
Nelson, of Brooklyn Park, said the metro area depends on adequate transportation funding to stay vital, helping it raise money to pay for needs elsewhere in the state.
Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, of Hanska, disputed assertions by the Metro Council and other transit leaders that the bill would cut bus services by 40 percent. He said if cuts affected services to that extent he would work to find a way to retain essential lines and services.
Torkelson, the chairman of the transportation committee, said Minnesota residents shouldn't have to pay higher taxes or fees, and using the general fund and borrowing money would prevent it.
"Raising the gas tax is darn near impossible," Torkelson said. "At this point in time, I believe it's unnecessary. We have the funds available to put together a robust transportation bill right now and we should do it, utilizing the resources that are available."
Democrats said they fear the state will run up debt fixing its infrastructure without a plan to pay for it.
The two chambers of the Legislature face some differences in their transportation bills — the Senate dedicates $1.4 billion less over the next ten years — that will have to be reconciled before the Legislature comes to the bargaining table with Gov. Mark Dayton.
And the battle over a hike in the gas tax and rail projects, which Dayton supports, is likely to divide Republican lawmakers and the governor again this year during negotiations.