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Playing Politics with Light Rail a Serious Risk

April 16, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
The last time Tim Pawlenty stood in the way of a much-needed transit project, the Northstar commuter rail line was delayed six years and taxpayers ended up footing a heavier bill for half a loaf of 21st century mobility.

Now the governor -- reprising his obstructionism as House majority leader over Northstar service that should have run from Minneapolis to St. Cloud in 2003 but now will get only halfway there next year - has issued his second veto of state matching funds for the Central Corridor light-rail project, casting its future into serious doubt.

This train line linking the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns is the linchpin of the Pawlenty administration's own plans for a comprehensive Twin Cities rapid bus and rail transit system by 2030, when the Central is projected to carry more than 41,000 riders each weekday. It's the No. 1 priority of the St. Paul-Minneapolis business community, according to three area chambers of commerce representing 3,800 firms.

"Minnesota simply cannot afford to pass up an economic development opportunity of this magnitude," the chambers said in newspaper ads last week.

Forgoing the Central also would mean the loss of more than $450 million in federal funds, worsening Minnesota's net outflow of tax dollars to Washington amid an economic downturn. And it would put to waste a current local government investment of $40 million in preliminary engineering for a project that is employing more than 100 people.

So it's downright puzzling, at least at first glance, why Pawlenty would veto a $70 million Central state bonding request he himself made just three months ago. Last week's kibosh completed a flip-flop-flip by the governor, who also vetoed bonding for the Central last year.

But no government policy exists in a vacuum, and it's now obvious that the governor is holding the Central hostage for his unrelated grievances with the Legislature this year. It's a long list: the transportation funding bill enacted over his veto in February, disputes over how to balance the state budget, legislative indifference to some of his favorite bonding proposals and more.

Backers of the Central project acknowledge that the veto greatly strengthened Pawlenty's position for end-of-session negotiations at the Capitol. But they also fear he's ventured into perilous brinksmanship that could cut off Minnesota's economic success to spite his political rivals.

"It's pretty risky," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a leading Central promoter. "He's got all the cards now, but if we don't keep this thing moving we could lose it all."

The biggest problem with Pawlenty's ploy is that he can try to leverage the Central to save his ineffective JOBZ rural development program or build a nursing home for veterans or drain the state's Health Care Access Fund to balance the books, but it's unclear how he could keep his end of such a bargain.

That's because, in the unique legislative calculus of bonding bills, practically all rural or Republican support for the Central Corridor drained away the minute the governor spared $717 million in other requests from line-item vetoes. This point was driven home as Pawlenty toured the state last week ceremonially signing bonding authority for projects in Albert Lea, Austin, Bemidji and St. Cloud.

Legislators from those places, and dozens of others around MInnesota, have gotten theirs. So what's in it for them to ring up more on the state's credit card for some choo-choo train in those darned Cities?

Despite all this, the Central's supporters remain hopeful that a deal can be done yet this spring, before the project misses a September funding deadline and falls to the bottom of a list of proposals from across the country competing for scarce federal transit assistance.

 "There is a way to yes on this," said Pawlenty appointee Peter Bell, who heads the Metropolitan Council, the state agency developing the transit line.

Added McLaughlin: "I think the governor is capable of delivering it."

If not, or if his ransom price is too high, one unpalatable option remains to keep the train on the track: tapping the new quarter-cent transit sales tax in the Twin Cities for another $70 million - on top of the  $300 million in Central costs it's already on the hook for.

"We could do that," McLaughlin said. "But that means every other project in the region falls further behind. We can't have the Central Corridor eat up all this money because the state is reneging on its commitment."

Transit improvements need a reliable partnership among local, state and federal governments. If that blows up this time, prospects for long-term progress in the Twin Cities will suffer a severe setback.

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