The Governor and OurLeader Support the Central Corridor
Or, Damning With Faint Praise?
It would be one thing if either Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty or the Democratic-Farmer-Labor majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate actively opposed a light-rail project linking St. Paul and Minneapolis. That would make it easier to understand why the project sits on a siding as the regular legislative session enters its final week.
But Pawlenty, while not blowing train whistles with enthusiasm, supported $70 million in state funding for the Central Corridor project earlier this year. His appointed Metropolitan Council chair, Peter Bell, sees the project as critical and has worked hard to reduce costs and remove roadblocks. DFL legislative leaders have the pro-rail enthusiasm the governor lacks, and even enacted (over his veto) a measure allowing an increase in metropolitan sales taxes to help fund transit.
We support the project as a vital link in our transportation network and as another option for those driven out of their cars by gas-pump-shock. We would be upset if our state leaders decided the project is unneeded or that economic conditions call for a postponement. But at least we could understand it. What we can't fathom, and what the public always faults the Legislature for, is this do-nothing runaround that never says "no" but never says "yes" either.
Its estimated cost is $909 million. Half is to come from federal tax dollars. The other half is to be divided among state tax dollars and property taxes raised by Ramsey and Hennepin counties.
It's our hard-earned money, and it's a fair bit of it. We understand the concerns of those who aren't sold on rail or who openly oppose the project. Many fiscal conservatives are in this camp. We believe that they fail to acknowledge the equally enormous expense of roads and bridges. We support both. For that reason, we supported the DFL transportation bill that raised new money for roads, bridges and transit.
Pawlenty originally put $70 million for the project in his capital projects bill. But when the Legislature presented him with a bill that he felt was too costly, one of the vetoed items was the Central Corridor appropriation. He has said the project can be revived if there is an agreement on the separate issue of how to deal with an expected shortfall in the general fund budget.
On his radio show Friday, he called Central Corridor "the nearly $1 billion light-rail project between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It's $100 million a mile, I think $20,000 a foot.'' We note the new I-35W bridge is costing $234 million to carry cars 1,200 feet over water and banks of the Mississippi. By the gov's accounting, that comes out to $195,000 a foot.
Pawlenty said the debate over routing the rail line through the University of Minnesota campus is a problem. Indeed it is — but he offered no help on that front. He is in his sixth year in office but we do not recall him getting behind this project or fighting it. Friday was no exception. "I said I'm not opposed to it, necessarily,'' he said.
The project won't be built without federal funding. To remain in the pipeline, Peter Bell wants to submit preliminary engineering reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation this fall. So an agreement on state money is needed this session — by May 19. An agreement with the university will also have to come, although not quite as quickly. We have confidence that Bell and U officials will get that done.
On Friday, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks urged Pawlenty to approve the $70 million Central Corridor item — a signal that the university wants the train. U vice president Kathleen O'Brien said Friday that "dozens of people are working to figure how to make it work.'' Bell was working equally hard to respond to the university's routing concerns, a spokesman said.
"This is zero hour,'' said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, a stalwart Central Corridor champion. She's right. We understand and respect the governor's right to negotiate. We don't agree with everything Hausman and DFL leaders want. But if everyone favors it — or at least, no one opposes it — the Central Corridor should not be the last bargaining chip of the 2008 legislative session.
The University administration has taken major steps to sabotage the project if it does not use the so-called Northern route. Calling for support while lobbying against the project is not the openness and transparency publicly espoused by OurLeader.
Pay attention to what they do, not what they say.