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St. Paul, Minn. — The proposed Northstar commuter rail line would link a 40-mile stretch from Minneapolis to Big Lake, at a cost of $265 million. Supporters say it would relieve traffic congestion in one of the fastest-growing corridors of the state. Opponents say it's another heavily-subsidized transit project like the Hiawatha light rail line.
Gov. Pawlenty opposed the project as a legislator, but says he changed his mind earlier this year after the Bush administration concluded the project met cost-effectiveness standards.
"This project, we believe, will reduce commuter hours by approaching one million hours a year -- 890,000 hours per year," says Pawlenty. "That is a significant savings in terms of time in car or congestion for Minnesotans who can use this commuter corridor."
Pawlenty sported a yellow "I'm on board" button, and announced his plan surrounded by state and county officials who support Northstar. Lt. Gov. and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau wasn't there -- she has said she personally opposes the commuter rail line but will support it politically because of Pawlenty's stance.
Pawlenty says he'll use $2.5 million from a Met Council transit fund to secure $10 million in federal money. He says Minnesota faces a Sept. 30 deadline to match the money or lose it. The counties along the corridor -- Anoka, Sherburne and Hennepin -- are also expected to chip in another $10 million.
The money will be used to acquire land along the rail line, and continue negotiations with the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad, which owns the line.
Critics say the governor is ignoring legislative intent on the issue.
"The governor, quite simply and plainly, is trying to circumvent the legislative process," says State Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview. He says the Legislature has failed to approve Northstar funding over the past four years. Krinkie, who chairs the committee that deals with capital investment projects, says Pawlenty shouldn't move ahead with Northstar on his own.
"Certainly if that's the way the governor wants to operate, he can do that. I don't think it bodes well for any cooperation in the future over some of these projects," Krinkie says.
The governor, quite simply and plainly, is trying to circumvent the legislative process. ... I don't think it bodes well for any cooperation in the future.
Pawlenty says he's not trying to do an end-run around the Legislature. He says Northstar is one of many issues that got caught up in the end-of-session gridlock this year. He says he needed to act if Minnesota wanted to take advantage of the federal money.
Pawlenty acknowledges there is some risk for the state and for the counties involved in the Northstar Corridor Development Authority in moving forward without a legislative commitment to fund the bulk of the project.
"Real estate's usually a pretty good investment, no matter what. The NCDA money is going to go primarily towards design work, so there may be a little bit more risk there. But I think it's a reasonable assumption that this project will ... hopefully get favorable treatment from the Legislature in the future," Pawlenty says.
The chief House sponsor of the Northstar funding, Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, says she thinks the project will get legislative approval next year.
"I think it will not be as divisive in the next legislative session, partially because of the success of the Hiawatha line. People are seeing a real need for some transit alternatives," says Tingelstad. "Also, I think you'll see some changes through the election. Most people would guess that there won't be 81 Republicans in the House of Representatives, there will be more Democrats."
The House has rejected Northstar funding in the last couple of capital investment bills, while the Senate has traditionally supported the commuter rail line.
Northstar opponents say they'll continue to object to the project. The chair of the House Transportation Finance committee, Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, says Pawlenty has not outlined a plan to pay to operate Northstar. He says he may send a letter to the Federal Transit Authority, pointing out that the Legislature hasn't approved funding for the project.