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House approval of bonding bill puts commuter rail on track
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Rep. Frank Moe has suggested that projects for his district weren't included in the bonding bill as "payback" for defeating a Republican incumbent last November. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota House has overwhelmingly passed an $816 million package of public works projects. And as part of the legislation the House has, for the first time, approved some seed money for the proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Northstar supporters are confident that the bipartisan vote means the project will finally receive state bonding money this year.

St. Paul, Minn. — The House capital investment bill, commonly called the bonding bill, contains dozens of construction projects around the state, ranging from roof repairs at the University of Minnesota to a police and fire station in Blue Earth.

But the item that got the most debate is the project that's divided House members for five years. The Northstar commuter rail line would run 40 miles along existing tracks in the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs.

Opponents of the project tried unsuccessfully to remove Northstar money from the bill. Northstar supporter Kathy Tinglestad, R-Andover, says getting $10 million for the project through the House is a major milestone.

"Typically, third time is the charm, but this project took a few more years," she said.

Tinglestad says the election results changed the dynamics in the House. She says two Republican legislators who opposed Northstar were defeated by DFLers. Opponents argue that the line won't reduce congestion in the northwest corridor.

Lakeville Republican Mary Liz Holberg, who chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, says the project is fiscally irresponsible.

"We have no plan to fund the operating costs of this particular line, but nobody wants to talk about that. The truth to this is it's irresponsible! We haven't taken care of the whole project, she said.

Holberg was one of 12 House members who voted against the bonding bill, while 121 members voted for it. It would authorize the state to borrow $781 million through bond sales for construction projects. The remaining $35 million in the bill would be financed by state colleges and universities.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Dan Dorman of Albert Lea, says the bill is balanced between metro and rural projects, and those in Republican and DFL districts.

"You can always find a reason to be against it, a reason to be negative, a reason not to support something, but I think it is a good package," according to Dorman.

A couple of freshman DFLers did find a reason to oppose the bill. Frank Moe of Bemidji and Brita Sailer of Park Rapids, who beat Republican incumbents in the November election, say projects in their districts were excluded from the bill.

Moe says a renovation at Bemidji State University, a Bemidji hockey arena and money for the Paul Bunyan trail in Bemidji were in the House bill last year. He says he had no qualms about voting against this bill.

"Oh, heck no! If a bill comes out that pulls the Bemidji-area projects out of the mix, how can I vote for it? That's the district I represent," he said.

Moe says he's hopeful that the Bemidji projects will end up in the final version of the bill. Two of them are included in the bonding bill that passed the Senate last month, which is about $200 million higher than the House bill. The Senate bill also includes $37 million for Northstar, an amount supporters say is necessary to get federal matching money for the rail line.

House and Senate negotiators will begin working out differences between the two bills as early as next week, after a new revenue forecast is released.

Capital Investment Committee Chair Dorman says construction on some of the projects could begin yet this spring.

"If we get a bill out to conference and back, I would say even the middle of March, we're in very, very, very good shape to get the projects rolling this season," he said.

The Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill last year, and legislative leaders say the pressure is on to avoid a repeat of the "do-nothing Legislature" label that plagued them after last session.