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Pawlenty splits with some Republicans on Northstar project
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The proposed route for the Northstar commuter rail line, from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. Gov. Pawlenty has proposed $35 million to help begin construction of the line for the initial phase, as far north as Big Lake. (Image courtesy of Northstar Corridor Development Authority)
Gov. Pawlenty Tuesday reversed years of opposition to a northwest metro commuter rail line linking Minneapolis to Big Lake. Pawlenty is now offering nearly $40 million in state funds to jumpstart the Northstar Commuter Rail line. The governor says a new cost-benefit analysis helped convince him that the project deserves support. But the change of heart has left many of Pawlenty's former legislative colleagues upset and disappointed.

Anoka, Minn. — During his years as a Republican lawmaker, Gov. Pawlenty helped lead the fight against funding for Northstar. As recently as 2002, Pawlenty warned that attempts to channel state dollars to the rail project would doom any legislation that contained such language.

But later that year, as he campaigned for governor, he began to soften his position, encouraging supporters and critics to await more study of the project. Now, he says an analysis by the Federal Transit Administration has convinced him throw his support to Northstar.

"I put a significant weight on the FTA's assessment of this project. And based on the information that they have, it looks like this project has a great deal of promise and hope," Pawlenty says. "And so we're going to support it -- we're going to support it strongly. And now we need to get the ball into the endzone."

Larger view
Image Demo train

The project was originally expected to connect Minneapolis with St. Cloud -- but the FTA gave its blessing only to a route that ends in Big Lake, about 40 miles short of St. Cloud.

The analysis by the FTA suggested the Big Lake-to-Minneapolis line could save commuters 892,000 hours per year over the best potential bus system.

The truncated project is estimated to cost $265 million. The federal government is expected to provide half of that funding. The state would pick up about one-third of the cost, and local governments would bridge the remaining gap. That's slightly more than county officials had originally expected to pay, but Anoka County Board chairman Dan Erhart says those who live along the corridor are willing to shoulder that burden.

"We believe that the constituents are willing to address the issue of cost, and will be willing to sacrifice a little bit more to get this project running," says Erhart.

Erhart and other officials along the train's route praised Pawlenty's change of heart. But not everyone was so charitable.

"Does the governor think us fools?" asks State Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, who has been one of the state's most vocal opponents of the Northstar Commuter project.

Krinkie notes that included in the Northstar package is additional funding to link the line with the almost-completed Hiawatha Light Rail project in downtown Minneapolis. Krinkie says that funding is a direct contradiction of Pawlenty's own campaign promises not to fund LRT. He called the governor's new-found support for Northstar a violation of the public's trust.

"The Northstar project -- in and of itself -- is just another boondoggle, just another huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars for a few thousand people being subsidized to get back and forth to work," says Krinkie.

This is how the state gets into budget problems. You have to have a funding mechanism in place before you start the first one of many rail projects being planned.
- House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester

The DFL-controlled Senate has consistently approved Northstar funding in recent years. But House Republicans led by Krinkie and others, including until recently, Pawlenty, have so far blocked any funding. Krinkie chairs the House Capital Investment committee, which has control over bonding projects like Northstar. He says he'll give the plan a fair hearing later this year.

House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, warned his colleagues to move slowly until the project's final cost was determined.

"This is how the state gets into budget problems," he said. "You have to have a funding mechanism in place before you start the first one of many rail projects being planned."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum said House Republicans wouldn't take a caucus position on the issue, but rather would leave the decision to each member.

Pawlenty's announcement hasn't just caused dissension among his former House colleagues. Even his own administration shows some signs of division. Noticeably, Lt. Gov. and state Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau wasn't at the governor's announcement. Pawlenty says it's no secret that Molnau has always been a staunch Northstar opponent.

"I think it's fair to say she has continuing concerns about the project," says Pawlenty. "But we have, as an administration, made a decision to move forward with the project. And she's going to be a team player."

Molnau says she's willing to work with Pawlenty on the project, and that she'll continue to study the plan's projected benefits. But she's clearly not been completely won over.

"I still have some concerns, but we're moving forth to the next phase," says Molnau. "And we will get final details on exact costs and all of that later, as the governor has said."

Molnau says, however, that she and Pawlenty remain united on the remainder of his transportation bonding plan. It would funnel $38 million into local road and bridge projects, and earmark $10 million for a busway linking the Mall of America and the southern Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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