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Commuter rail plan stalls at Capitol stop
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
February 12, 2002

Gov. Ventura is accusing lawmakers of playing politics with transportation projects. He wants the Legislature to fund his proposal for a commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis. But many lawmakers are skeptical of the project, and a plan approved by a key Senate committee recommended borrowing only a fraction of the governor's proposal.

Gov. Ventura told a transportation conference that Minnesota needs commuter rail, and North Star is the right project. Listen to his comments.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

Gov. Ventura wants the state to borrow $120 million for the North Star line he has proposed to link St. Cloud and Minneapolis. It's the biggest single item in his bonding proposal. Ventura told a transportation conference that Minnesota needs commuter rail, and North Star is the right project.

"North Star is critical, not only because it gives people in the fastest growing corridor in the state another choice, but because it takes people off the road, making room for those who choose to drive," Ventura said.

Ventura criticized the "politicking" of commuter rail. Some lawmakers oppose the project because they want to put more money into roads. Others don't want the state transportation department to run the project because of ill will over light rail and cost overruns.

Ventura says the real motivation is politics. "This is not about roads versus transit, it's not about who's in control of a project, it's not about reliving the tired old light-rail debate, it's about being honest, it's about leadership, and it's about what's right for Minnesota," he said.

"He always says we play politics but he never does. Well, he always does, and we sometimes do," responded Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee. The capital improvements package approved by his committee includes only $8 million for commuter rail, which Langseth says will match some federal money for the project. He says commuter rail should be included in the state's transit options, along with light rail and express busways.

But Langseth says he's not willing to recommend $120 million for commuter rail this year. "That's going to be a real problem as far as our targets and our limitations and everything, and I'm not convinced yet you need the full 120 now, cause it's going to take several years for this to get spent," Langseth said.

The House hasn't released its bonding proposal yet, but many House Republicans - still angry over light rail - don't want to fund commuter rail. The chair of the House Capital Investment Committee - Republican Jim Knoblach - hasn't made up his mind about the North Star line. But he's feeling a lot of pressure to fund it, because it will run through his St. Cloud district.

"There are plenty of people who aren't going to like me, no matter what position I take on this," he said. "I guess the big concerns I have are cost; it's $120 million up front."

And Knoblach says it will cost the state $10 million a year to run the line. But he says it may well be justified, because roads are expensive as well. Knoblach says he'll make a decision on the North Star line before he releases the House capital investment proposal in early March.

Most of the members of his caucus are opposed to commuter rail, so it seems unlikely the project will fare much better in the House than in the Senate.

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