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Dissent may derail planned Minn. high-speed rail line

(The following story by Hank Shaw appeared on the St. Paul Pioneer Press website on January 14.)

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to borrow $37.5 million for the Northstar commuter rail line has sparked an intramural fight among Republicans in the state House and has one of Minnesota's most powerful interest groups vowing to kill the proposal.

With the governor's backing and long-standing support from the Democratic-controlled state Senate, the fate of the Minneapolis-to-Big Lake line lies in the House.

Pawlenty had opposed Northstar when he was House majority leader but softened his stance when he ran for governor in 2002. His announcement Tuesday that he backs the rail line represents the best chance of success yet for the $265 million project, which has languished in the early planning stages for years.

"What a long, strange trip it's been, but we think we're about to make that trip a little better," Pawlenty said at a news conference in Anoka.

But division within GOP ranks even showed itself at Pawlenty's event, which Lt. Gov. and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau did not attend.

"It's no secret that the lieutenant governor has been a skeptic of this project," Pawlenty said. "It's fair to say she still has concerns, but she's willing to be a team player."

Pawlenty said he expects controversy in the House. Northstar nearly scuttled the last major round of state borrowing in 2002, when House Republican leaders -- Pawlenty among them -- derailed the project in tense negotiations with the Senate.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum fears the same could happen this winter and has suggested that he might let Northstar stand or fall alone.

Pawlenty said he's committed to the project. "The House is divided, but with our leadership I believe we can get it done," he said. "I'm going to push for it."

Some of Pawlenty's fellow Republicans plan to push back.

"It's very disheartening," said Rep. Phil Krinkie, a Shoreview Republican who is chairman of the House committee that oversees state borrowing. "The governor, when he was campaigning, said he was not going to support adding money for light rail. Now that he's in office, he's forgotten that promise."

Building Northstar means spending an additional $32 million to connect it to the Hiawatha light rail line in Minneapolis.

Another key lawmaker said he was alarmed that Pawlenty would support Northstar without knowing its true price tag. Pawlenty acknowledged that the $265 million figure will rise before the train begins running in 2008.

"We don't think it's going to skyrocket, but we anticipate some modest change," Pawlenty said.

"That's how the state gets into budget problems," said Rep. Bill Kuisle, a Rochester Republican who is chairman of the House committee that oversees transportation funding. Kuisle said the state has no idea how it will pay the $10 million needed to run Northstar every year.

Pawlenty said local governments will pay for half that cost, just as Minneapolis is expected to pay for half the cost to run the Hiawatha line.

The governor is not without allies. Other than the DFL-controlled state Senate, House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul said his colleagues are 100 percent behind Northstar.

Entenza said he was glad Pawlenty had changed his mind on rail and added that the real danger to Northstar is Sviggum's proposal to split the project from the larger borrowing plan.

"Doing that seriously jeopardizes Northstar's chances of passing," Entenza said.

That's just fine by David Strom of the Minnesota Taxpayer's League.

Strom said his group will do what it takes to defeat Pawlenty's proposal, including lobbying and an ad campaign if necessary.

Strom said any lawmaker supporting Northstar will have a tougher time winning the Taxpayer's League endorsement, which can make or break Republican candidates if they have a conservative opponent.

And 2004 is an election year.

"It's a silly idea," Strom said. "The simplest cost-benefit analysis shows that commuter rail is an even worse deal for taxpayers than light rail. This was a very political decision."

Strom said Pawlenty needs Anoka County politically. "The corridor runs through a vote-rich and pork-poor area of the state," he said.

"Combine that with millions of tax-funded lobbying dollars, and you get the result we see today."

Carrying Anoka is indeed a critical part of winning a statewide election in Minnesota. Its voters have chosen the winner in all but one statewide race since 1988.

"This is going to be one of the key dividing issues in this legislative session," Strom said. "Whoever wins this will come out bloody and scarred."

Thursday, January 15, 2004

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