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Time is Money: Conservatives Slowed Northstar, Ran Up Costs

August 01, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Imagine this: Sleek passenger trains whisking workers, students, sports fans and even disabled veterans along the busy Minneapolis-St. Cloud corridor at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour. That's the promise of the Northstar commuter rail line, now under construction to go as far as Big Lake, Minn., and scheduled for its first "All Aboard!" in 2009.

Now imagine the Northstar already in operation, extending 80 miles to Rice, Minn., diverting thousands of commuters daily from traffic-clogged Hwy. 10 -- and costing a lot less than its current $320 million price tag.

It coulda, shoulda happened.

No thanks to conservative obstructionism in the Minnesota Legislature, though, the Northstar is running years behind its originally planned 2003 arrival. Led by former GOP Reps. Tim Pawlenty and Phil Krinkie - now, respectively, governor of the state and president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota - the House refused to match local and federal contributions to the project for years until finally acceding in 2005 and 2006.

The change of heart came only after the GOP lost two northwest suburban House districts along the Northstar route in the 2004 election, which turned heavily on that issue.

As governor, Pawlenty did an about-face on the Northstar, too, proclaiming himself "absolutely committed" to its completion as he signed its first $37.5 million bond appropriation in 2005. He pushed for and secured the final state share of $60 million last year. Due to inflation and shrinking federal support, however, the delay has been expensive.

"It's ironic to hear people say they want to make sure Northstar is cost-effective," said Elwyn Tinklenberg,

former state transportation commissioner whose requests for funding the train were snubbed by the Republican House Majority beginning in 2000. "What they've done is cut the length of the line in half and doubled the cost."

Tightened federal funding standards prompted shortening Northstar's terminus to tiny Big Lake, 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis. "It makes no sense to stop in the middle of nowhere," Tinklenberg said. The full original route would have connected Veterans Administration medical centers in St. Cloud and Minneapolis, St. Cloud State University students with their classrooms and workers with the region's two main employment centers, he added.

Already, central Minnesota Republican officials are calling for completing the line beyond St. Cloud, which could boost the total cost four times beyond its initial estimate of less than $200 million.

Do-nothing politicians such as Krinkie complain that transit projects always incur severe cost overruns. They blame it on low-balling, bait-and-switch tactics by government. The Northstar saga unveils the real culprits: obstructionist ideologues whom the Minneapolis Star Tribune once described like this: "When the subject is rail, they're for buses; when the subject is buses, they're for roads; when the subject is roads, they're against spending."

Northstar's belated progress notwithstanding, the problem persists. This year Pawlenty vetoed both a transportation funding bill that would have taken giant steps toward building the ambitious Twin Cities transit system his administration envisions in 2030 (pushed back from an earlier 2020 target) and a bonding appropriation to jump-start the network's centerpiece, which would connect the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns via light rail.

"If we keep this approach of just one transit line per decade," Tinklenberg said, "it's going to be a long time before we have a system."


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