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Pork plan derails Northstar commuter rail
The Northstar commuter rail line linking Minneapolis with its northwestern suburbs has taken a step backward. On Tuesday night, a House committee voted to strip funding for the project from a bill that finances long-term state construction projects. The Northstar line has the support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and key legislative leaders from both parties. But a group of mainly Republican opponents engineered a miniature revolt by making the opposition an offer it couldn't refuse.

St. Paul, Minn. — Rep. Bill Haas, R-Champlin, says he has no objections to the Northstar project per se, but he was frustrated to see that a proposed $37.5 million downpayment for the train line was to come from money previously approved for an express commuter busway. Although both projects are routed through his district, Haas said he felt obligated to restore the funding for the bus even if it came at the expense of the rail.

"When you take and you pit one project against another and you take one project that's already been approved by this Legislature and take it away for another project that doesn't help us at all, that's a slap in the face to the communities in the northwest part of the metro area," he said.

To entice members of the House Ways and Means Committee to vote his way, Haas used the savings from Northstar to do more than restore the bus route. He sprinkled his amendment with more than a dozen other projects to be located in the home districts of many of his fellow committee members.

The strategy worked. Faced with a choice between Northstar and a crop of home-grown projects, the committee voted 18-10 in favor of the amendment.

DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher ultimately decided to stick by Northstar by voting against the amendment. But that meant also voting "no" to flood-mitigation dollars for her Minneapolis district. Kelliher says the amendment was designed to put lawmakers in a bind, but she says that's often how the process works.

"I think it's not necessarily uncommon," she said. "It's maybe more uncommon in such a public setting to see it happen this way. It's a little more like sausage-making than we want to look at in the open."

The vote will hardly be the last word on Northstar. Republican Kathy Tinglestad of Andover, the chief House sponsor of the rail line's funding,e says she'll offer to restore the money when the bill is debated in the full House on Thursday. And Tinglestad says two can play the game of luring support with favored projects.

"We haven't figured out the exact amendment yet for the House floor. But I think you saw a lot of games being played with this amendment," she said.

Tinglestad says she expects the full House to be more supportive than the committee was. That's in part because Northstar has the support of Gov. Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum. Although both were, in past years, vocal opponents of the commuter line, the two have recently switched their positions, citing more recent -- and more favorable -- cost-benefit data.

Sviggum, who also sits on the Ways and Means Committee, voted to keep the Northstar funding intact, arguing that lawmakers shouldn't let parochial interests sway them.

"It's pretty easy just to look a the boundaries of a district and not look at the good of the state. I will tell you that the Northstar corridor is a necessary project. It's part of a balance; a balance that needs to be brought forward in transportation, folks," he said.

Republican Phil Krinkie of Shoreview, a longtime opponent of the Northstar and chair of the committee that oversees capital investment, says the rail project's costs far exceed potential benefits. And he says once built, the train will eventually cost millions more to operate. He says the state has other needs that are arguably more deserving.

"You could certainly talk about taking money away from the Northstar and putting it to fund the Red Lake School, to fund -- to fully fund -- the expansion at the Faribault prison. You could look at it to fund permanent supportive housing," he said.

Pawlenty administration officials say the Northstar debate not yet settled. The DFL-controlled Senate supports the project. And because the Senate has a larger appetite for borrowing to pay for the projects, it's likely to find room for the rail line and the bus line.

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