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Budget woes will make easing transportation gridlock difficult
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It was standing room only a year ago when transportation officials used a commuter train to demonstrate what a St. Cloud to Minneapolis link would be like. Now the Northstar line is given little chance of survival in the Legislature. (MPR file photo)
Major transportation initiatives have been stalled at the state Capitol for the last few years, leading to what some advocates say is a near crisis situation on Minnesota's roads and buses. During the campaign for governor, Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty promised that would change under his leadership. But then came the news of the state's whopping $4.5 billion projected deficit. The deficit -- and Pawlenty's pledge not to raise taxes -- complicate the debate over transportation funding.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov.-elect Pawlenty established a presence in the transportation debate early, when, roughly a year ago, he selected Rep. Carol Molnau, R-Chaska, to be his running mate. Molnau served for four years as the tough-minded chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee and Pawlenty advertised her as a "one woman SWAT team" who would rebuild the state tranportation department.

Now Pawlenty has taken the unprecedented step of naming his lieutenant-governor to head MnDOT. At the press conference, he said the need for new leadership could not be more urgent.

"We have a million new people coming to the region, the Twin Cities metropolitan -- seven-county metropolitan -- area, in the next 15 or 20 years," Pawlenty says. "We already have difficult traffic congestion. In greater Minnesota, the need for inter-regional corridor improvement is not only important to economic development, but it's important to safety, it's important to the quality of life."

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Image Paul McCarron

In 2000 the state transportation system got a one-time, $500 million injection of cash to jumpstart new construction projects. But since then, no major initiatives have survived the legislative process.

"I think we lost that opportunity in the '90s," says Fred Corrigan of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. "We used that excuse in the '90s, that 'you guys are going to have to wait on it.' And it frankly started in 1991 with the last major deficit. So we've pretty used up the capacity of the infrastructure to deal with growth."

Corrigan says he's encouraged to hear Pawlenty's support for accelerated transportation spending. But it's no longer clear that the state's resources match the governor-elect's desires. Pawlenty's proposed borrowing as much as $2 billion over the next five years to provide a quick infusion of funds. Skeptics of that approach are plentiful.

"You can't do it with smoke and mirrors," says incoming DFL Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger. Borrowing money now, he says, will create problems when the bills come due.

"How do we pay for it in the future? Without cutting maintencance, without cutting the opportunity to keep any new roads we create or any new transit we create operating properly?" Hottinger asks.

And House Speaker Steve Sviggum, one of Pawlenty's closest allies in state government, agrees. Sviggum says the unexpected size of the state's projected deficit will make it hard to repay any money that's borrowed.

"People who sell bonds -- who buy bonds -- want to get paid back. That's kind of how this country works. You borrow some money, you want to get paid back on what you borrow. I don't think that you can place a larger burden on a general fund that's already significantly in debt. It seems to me that you have to have a revenue source to pay off those bonds," says Sviggum.

A revenue source, Sviggum says, such as an increase in the gas tax. Pawlenty has steadfastly opposed a gas tax increase, but he appears increasingly isolated on that point. Sviggum and Hottinger, as well as the two minority caucus leaders, all support an upward bump. So do the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Transporation Alliance.

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Image New leadership for MnDOT.

Still, Pawlenty isn't wavering. Instead, he suggests the swelling deficit may force him to present a more modest transportation bonding plan. And he says authorizing the bonds this year doesn't mean they'll be issued immediately. That, he says, could wait until the budget picture brightens.

"So you could authorize the bonds and then have the authorization or issuance of the bonds be contingent upon the Legislature and the governor agreeing on financing -- a way to finance it -- sometime in the next three to five years," says Pawlenty.

Former MnDOT commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg says it's dissappointing that Pawlenty won't back down on his gas-tax opposition. Tinklenberg, in fact, would go a step further and ask metro-area voters to approve a sales tax surcharge to fund transportation initiatives in and around the Twin Cities. Still, Tinklenberg says he is impressed by the new governor's willingness to reform the way projects are administered. He says successful projects must cut their way through a thicket of regulations and overlapping jurisdictions that cost time and taxpayer money.

"Steps that were created in the Legislature regarding wetland jurisdiction issues and watershed -- the power of watersheds. Steps that were created in legislation related to municipal consent. I mean we have spent years and years and countless millions of dollars trying to buy municipal consent from every community we go through," says Tinklenberg.

Tinklenberg says he's encouraged by Pawlenty's apparent willingness to prune the legislative entanglements. But there are some reservations about the new administration.

Lea Schuster, the executive director for Transit for Livable Communities, says Pawlenty and Molnau have a record of opposing public transit projects, such as light-rail, commuter rail, and expanded busways.

"What we need here is balance. What we need here is choice. That's what Minnesotans want. And while we won't build a light rail out to Willmar, we don't necessarily want to add a couple of lanes on every road in the middle of the Twin Cities," according to Schuster.

Transit advocates say Molnau and Pawlenty will have an opportunity to demonstrate their committment to public transportation when the NorthStar commuter rail debate returns.

Last year, Pawlenty and Molnau led the charge against the project, which would link St. Cloud with downtown Minneapolis. But more recently, Pawlenty has said new information suggests the rail line might be more cost-effective than previously thought.

Anoka County Commissioner Paul McCarron, who heads the NorthStar Development Authority, says public support for the project is overwhelming.

"Sure they love their cars. But they don't love driving in downtown Minneapolis. No offense to downtown Minneapolis. You can't shove any more buses into downtown Minneapolis. You have to find another method in getting people in and out. And this is one of the methods, in one location, where it works," says McCarron.

Pawlenty says if that's true, he'll be more supportive. But he says he worries about the long-term costs of such projects. And he suggests the stake-holders should be more willing to contribute to the operating costs of transit projects once they're built.

"You've got all the folks who are going to benefit from the projects, including the county, the city, the land-owners, the developers. If they're so hot on these projects, maybe we should ask them to pay a little more," says Pawlenty.

Operating subsidies, says Pawlenty, can present real headaches. Already, he says, the state will have to find a way to run the Hiawatha light-rail line set to open in 2004. The Metropolitan Council, which owns the line, is seeking $13.4 million over the next two years to operate the line.

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