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LRT's Rough Ride
by Amy Radil
March 13, 2000
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House Republicans have introduced legislation to kill funding for the Twin Cities' light-rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America and the airport. They accuse the state transportation department of making misleading cost predictions last year when money was first allocated. But other legislators, say having taken the plunge, they should see the project through, especially considering the Senate and Governor Jesse Ventura both support the project.

HOUSE REPUBLICANS have had the light-rail project in their sights since the session started. Two GOP plans came before the House Transportation Committee. Representative Phil Krinkie's proposal would cancel $100 million put toward light rail in a deal last year, and committee chairwoman Carol Molnau introduced her own bill to build bus transitways instead of the light-rail line. The legislators accuse the Minnesota Department of Transportation of deliberately underestimating project costs.

"MnDot withheld crucial documents showing during the last legislative session they knew this line was going to cost more than they were telling the Legislature," said David Strom of the Minnesota Taxpayers League, "and they did not provide that information to the Legislature in a timely manner."

MnDot originally cast the project in 1997 dollars; costs escalated when inflation was taken into account, for a current estimate of $548 million. Transportation Commissioner Elwin Tinklenberg acknowledged the increase but angrily disputed that it was any secret.

"I take great offense given the lengths to which we went to make sure it was clear everyone understood that these were 1997 dollars, at the suggestion that we somehow attempted intentionally to dupe this body."

- Elwin Tinklenberg
Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation
Some legislators made clear they saw last year's light-rail funding as part of a larger deal that included outstate projects as well, and are still chafing over Governor Ventura's now-famous "pork stamp" vetoes of some of those projects.

But some legislators urged the committee to move on, despite any bad feelings over how the light rail deal was reached. Dan Larson, a DFLer from Bloomington, says he would have preferred more bus transit to the rail line, but he says House members should quit mulling over bills both Ventura and the Senate oppose. "I think we've spent more time discussing whether to build light rail transit since we voted to build light-rail transit and I'm wondering why we spend the kind of time we do on something the governor has promised to veto," Larson said.

Eliminating the light-rail funding would create another conflict to work out between the House and Senate transportation proposals. In unveiling the Senate package, Senator Dean Johnson said the Senate will keep light-rail funds intact. He says the Senate will simply want to keep an eye on how mass transit dollars are spent, through a new fund called the "multi-modal fund."

Ventura's support for the light-rail line stems in large part from the federal funding available; transportation officials say the state has applied for grants that would likely cover about half of the construction costs. Under Ventura's proposal, by 2010 the light rail line would be joined by a second line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as commuter rail and dedicated busways.