One of the most contentious issues at the Capitol this year is transportation funding. A House-Senate conference committee is deadlocked over whether to raise the gas tax, how much to spend on transit, and how much money to borrow for highway projects. But perhaps the most controversial transportation issue this session is the proposed $300 million Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. The project has divided House Republicans, and tapped into anger over light-rail funding.
Not all Republicans in the Minnesota House are against borrowing money for the Northstar commuter rail line; just most of them. Republicans who live near where the line would run, like Rep. Kathy Tinglestad of Andover, support it. After Tinglestad convinced the House to add $9 million for Northstar to the bonding bill, other Republicans tried to shift the money to a long list of projects ranging from the Guthrie Theater to affordable housing. An emotional Tinglestad called the attempts "politics at its worst," and defended her commitment to commuter rail.
"I've been called greedy. I've been called a caucus buster. I'm really a bad person over here for doing what I think is right, for doing what people in my community say we need," Tinglestad said.
Tinglestad's speech got a standing ovation from House Democrats. But she hasn't persuaded most of her Republican colleagues.
"My premise is always to stop any boondoggle that's going to cost the taxpayer millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, with little or no public benefit," countered Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, one of commuter rail's harshest critics.
He says rail isn't cost-effective, because the state ends up subsidizing a system used by relatively few people. Krinkie and other rail opponents are backed by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which accuses rail advocates of lying about cost-benefit numbers.
The league's legislative director, David Strom, says rail has always been controversial. He says opposition boiled over a few years ago, after Gov. Ventura made light rail a top priority and pushed to include $60 million for LRT in the 1998 bonding bill.
"I think almost all of it is due to the bad blood. And the problem is, is that, you've got a 'fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me' attitude," he said.
Strom says the bitterness over light rail stems from the ongoing cost to operate the Hiawatha line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America. It's estimated at $16 million in the first year. Opponents also accuse the Minnesota Department of Transportation of using accounting gimmicks to hide the true cost of the project.
"It'll be cheaper to give people a cab ride from downtown Minneapolis to the airport than it will be to operate this light-rail line."
- Rep. Tim Pawlenty
Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg says the state's portion of the cost of building the line is $100 million, and that amount hasn't changed. Tinklenberg says polls show that most Minnesotans support light rail and commuter rail. He says the issue shouldn't be roads versus transit, because the state needs to invest in both.
"Everyone understands that, and it's really frustrating to see the leadership in the House be so adamently opposed to it when the public is so clearly in support of it," Tinklenberg said.
Some rail supporters say one reason for House leaders' opposition is gubernatorial politics. House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty is seeking the Republican endorsement for governor. His rival in the endorsement battle is entrepreneur Brian Sullivan, a rail opponent who stands ready to pounce on Pawlenty if commuter rail funding emerges from the session.
Pawlenty, who actually voted for the 1998 bonding bill that included light-rail funding,says the issue goes beyond the endorsement battle. He says opposition to LRT and commuter rail started long before he and Sullivan got into the governor's race, because the costs are, in his words, horrifying.
"It'll be cheaper to give people a cab ride from downtown Minneapolis to the airport than it will be to operate this light-rail line; it's estimated somewhere between $20 and almost $50 a ride, depending on whose statistics you look at, and that is just hard to justify," Pawlenty said.
Rail supporters say the state should consider the cost of not building the Northstar line. They say expanding Highway 10 between St. Cloud and Minneapolis would cost nearly $1 billion - more than three times the price tag of Northstar.
Rep. Sharon Marko, DFL-Cottage Grove, says if the Legislature fails to fund Northstar this year, the state will miss out on federal funding. But she thinks House Republicans have gotten boxed into a corner because of conservative opposition in the media.
"I've heard nothing but nasty things said about rail, for the last three, four years, especially on the radio. The conservative talk shows in the Twin Cities have been blasting any rail investments as being a boondoggle, and so it pretty much kind of paints all rail with this broad brush," according to Marko.
Marko and other supporters say commuter rail is not a boondoggle, because it uses existing rail lines and will reduce traffic congestion in the fastest-growing corridor in the state. But commuter rail's prospects for money this year are uncertain, and likely to be decided in an end-of-session deal.More from MPR