Minnesota governor finds funding for commuter rail

| 8/5/2004

Driving around Minnesota’s Twin Cities could become a little less congested if Gov. Tim Pawlenty gets his way.

Acting without the Legislature’s endorsement, Pawlenty, a Republican, said Aug. 3 he has found a way to funnel $22.5 million to launch work on a commuter rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis to its northern suburbs.

Pawlenty told a press gathering that traffic congestion is one of the state’s biggest problems. The commuter line would extend 40 miles to Big Lake, MN.

The governor’s plan includes using $2.5 million from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council to secure $10 million in federal matching funds, according to a written statement released by Pawlenty’s office. The funding would be used to buy land along the corridor and to continue negotiations with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the line.

The federal dollars were slated to be lost if not used by the end of September. The Northstar Corridor Development Authority, which represents local communities along the planned line, is planning to vote this week to contribute an additional $10 million to help design the effort.

The total cost of the rail line is estimated at $265 million. The Metropolitan Council is expected to vote on the proposal as early as next week.

Pawlenty acknowledged some risk in moving to buy land without the Legislature setting aside money for the bulk of Northstar. But he said he believes most lawmakers support the project regardless of party affiliation.

Some lawmakers said the governor has done an end run around the Legislature.

In proposals for this year’s bonding bill, the state Senate – which is controlled by the Democratic Farm Labor party – included only a fraction of the dollars hoped for by rail supporters. The Republican-controlled House struck the project from its bill entirely. Ultimately, no bonding bill passed.

“The Northstar was killed in the House,” state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, told The Associated Press. “Now that we’re out of session, there’s nothing we can do about it … This project has not received the support of the Legislature.”

Holberg said lawmakers’ intent in crafting several statutes in recent years was to keep projects such as this from moving forward without legislative approval. But those statutes don’t appear to prohibit what Pawlenty plans to do.

“I think from the governor’s perspective, it’s a done deal,” Holberg said.