Supporters of the Northstar commuter rail line were confident with support from Gov. Jesse Ventura, a commuter rail line from St. Cloud to Minneapolis would happen. They're still hoping the legislature will offer full funding for the project this session.
Northstar officials say they need $120 million. But the proposed House bonding bill gives no money to the project. And the Senate's version of the bill only includes $8 million.
Legislators say it's likely some money will go toward the Northstar in the next few weeks. But some doubt it will be $120 million. Northstar supporters say if they don't get full funding this year, the project could be dead. They also accuse lawmakers of using Northstar as a political bargaining chip against one of the project's biggest supporters, the Governor.
Northstar backers say the commuter rail line is a good fix for traffic congestion. They say traffic levels are exploding on the 80 mile corridor from Minneapolis to north of St. Cloud. But it's not just the prospect of an easier commute that attracts the attention of communities along the rail line.
Rick Speak, a Northstar booster in Benton County, says commuter rail could be an economic boon.
"We believe it'll bring business to our area," Speak says. "It'll bring homeowners to our area, it'll allow us to be able to have a managed plan which we already strive for, but we'll be able to have a managed plan as to where people live and how we think out the process of how are community is going to look."
Speak is among the supporters asking the the state to borrow enough money to build the Northstar line. But so far the Legislature hasn't granted the request. The Senate's offers $8 million to Northstar. And the House version of the bill gave the project no funding.
Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, is chair of the House Capital Investment committee. He says although his committee recommended no money for the project, it may be added later.
"There was a lot of opposition to the Northstar Corridor among the leadership and the general House Republican rank and file, but I expect funding for the Northstar Corridor will be ammended into the bill," says Knoblach.
Knoblach thinks $30 million for Northstar might be added to the bonding bill. But Northstar supporters say their original request is the only figure that will work for the project.
"I don't think it's a good plan, and I don't think it's a full plan. And I don't think the costs... when we are looking at deficits and we are talking about what we cut next... there is nothing in his (the governor's) budget that tells us how we are going to pay for it"
- Rep. Carol Molnau, R-Chaska
Supporter Rick Speak says $120 million would show the federal government Minnesota is serious about building Northstar. And it would make the project eligible for matching funds.
Speak says, "The F.T.A., the Federal Transit Authority, has made it very clear that if Minnesota does not come up with $120 million of full funding money, that there will be no money from the Federal government for the project and that we will slip down to the bottom of the list which in essence kills the project."
Those opposed to funding for Northstar cite ridership figures that show only a few hundred customers per day on the northern stretches of the line. And they say the cost per rider is too high.
Rep.Carol Molnau, R-Chaska, says she won't support borrowing money for Northstar, especially when the state is looking at a more than $2 billion deficit.
"I don't think it's a good plan, and I don't think it's a full plan. And I don't think the costs... when we are looking at deficits and we are talking about what we cut next... there is nothing in his (the Governor's) budget that tells us how we are going to pay for it. "
"We're pretty assured that the governor is still really firmly behind the project and it's never done until the last gavel is hammered and everybody goes home. "
- Betsy Wergin, Northstar Development Project
Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg say the Northstar commuter rail line needs to be built now. He says if legislators push the issue 10 or 20 years down the road, it will be tough to put in place.
"There has been excuse after excuse after excuse, and delay after delay after delay and the consquences are starting to become serious for our economy and our quality of life," he says.
Some Northstar supporters say lawmakers are using the Northstar project to push Gov. Ventura into a bargaining mood. They say lawmakers might be willing to fund Northstar if the governor keeps some of their requests in the bonding bill.
Betsy Wergin is the Northstar Development Corridor's Chair. Wergin say she hopes the governor is willing to do what he needs to, to get funding for Northstar.
"We're pretty assured that the governor is still really firmly behind the project and it's never done until the last gavel is hammered and everybody goes home ," says Wergin.
The total cost of the Northstar commuter rail line is expected to top $280 million. Federal funds would cover half of the cost. The state and city and county governments would pick up the remaining half. Northstar supporters say if they can get the necessary funding, commuter trains will start traveling between Minneapolis and the St. Cloud area in about three years.