Mark Twain, upon reading his obituary, remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The same is true for the Central Corridor light rail line.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s surgical strike last week on the bonding bill sliced $70 million from the project. That was to be a critical installment payment. Unless the governor changes his mind before the session ends May 19, missing that payment will set off a chain reaction resulting in cancellation of a $450 million federal matching grant and the death of a project that has been on the drawing board in one form or another since 1873.
To the governor’s pleasure, Democrats greeted his line-item veto with hand wringing and hyperventilating. They used words like betrayal and double-cross in their attempt to deconstruct Pawlenty’s apparent sabotage of a project that only weeks before he had agreed to support if it were slimmed down a bit — a slimming that Democrats had accepted. And now this. As retribution, the Legislature’s DFL leadership pronounced the Central Corridor as good as dead, and named Pawlenty its assassin.
But, of course, the project isn’t dead. Not really.
What many people overlook — silly us — is that politics in Minnesota has degenerated into a cynical game. The object of the game is no longer to achieve the public good through rational compromise by mature adults. How quaint. No, the object of the game now is to wage tribal warfare and punish enemies.
As the late media critic Neil Postman once observed, children in America are now behaving more like adults, and adults are behaving more like children. A prominent Twin Cities business executive explained it to me in a less artful way on Monday while we were waiting to get our cars fixed: “This has become a brutish state in which all that matters is that mine is bigger than yours.”
Consider this tit-for-tat progression, as outlined by the Star Tribune’s Pat Lopez:
As the session begins, Senate DFL Leader Larry Pogemiller declares that his party will stop Minnesota’s “march to mediocrity.” Pawlenty answers by provocatively waving his veto pen at his State of the State speech. The DFL-led Legislature then overrides Pawlenty’s veto of a big transportation bill. Republicans take revenge against a half dozen GOP “collaborators.” (They had the audacity to side with the Chamber of Commerce.) The DFL dumps Pawlenty’s transportation commissioner. The governor warns against a big bonding bill, telling one DFL leader, “Cheap shots are cheap but they aren’t free.” The Legislature passes a bonding bill that exceeds the governor’s wishes by $200 million and excludes his two favorite projects. Take that! The governor slices $208 million from the bill. Of the 52 projects that he deletes, nearly all are in DFL districts, including the Central light rail line. So there!
One can imagine the state’s political leaders retelling all of this to a high school civics class (if high schools still have such classes): “Think of us as the Crips and Bloods with rubber bullets.”
And so, in the best tradition of guerilla theater, the Central Corridor will arise from its tomb on or about May 19, when the street gangs in suits gather to forge the Final Deal. (A preliminary sparring is scheduled for today.) Pawlenty figures to get the two projects he wants — a state park on Lake Vermillion and a veterans’ home in Minneapolis — and other concessions to meet the state’s $936 million deficit. In exchange he’ll offer the DFL a resurrection of the Central Corridor project — which, by the way, he wanted all along but which the Democrats want more.
That’s why Republicans are so much better at this game. They’re willing to risk more because they care less about public investments. Consider Pawlenty’s actual condition after the Legislature overrode his veto of the big transportation bill. He came out smelling like a rose; he got the road projects that he knows full well are badly needed, and he gets to blame the Democrats for raising the taxes that make the new roads possible.
A key question
As for the Central Corridor, it will happen. To think that it won’t is a bit like believing in 1960 that Interstate 94 won’t be coming through St. Paul and Minneapolis. It will happen because the times demand it. The cost of driving will continue to rise, and changes in the environment will continue to require cleaner transportation alternatives. As in other cities, light rail will become an increasingly important transportation option, especially as the expense of far-flung living and commuting becomes more apparent. Within 20 years, people will wonder how we ever lived without the Central Corridor, just as now we can’t imagine life without freeways.
The real question involves cost. If during session-ending negotiations, the governor clings to his line-item veto of the Central line, the project will be delayed by at least a year and its cost to the state will rise by at least $40 million. Pushing costs into the future, or onto other levels of government, has been a trademark of Pawlenty’s administration. In this instance, a delay might be welcomed by the line’s most important constituent, the University of Minnesota. It remains opposed to running trains on the surface through the heart of its main campus, and it has been pushing a more northerly alignment through Dinkytown. Further study of that would delay the project anyway.
It was 135 years ago, in 1873, that a street railway on University Avenue, connecting the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was first envisioned. An editorial in the Minneapolis Tribune was rhapsodic on the idea of a grand boulevard between the downtowns. “It thrills the aesthetic eye,” it said, describing a Paris-like thoroughfare lined with fountains, rows of trees and impressive buildings — and streetcars running down the center. The poet, er editorial writer, asked readers to imagine “this gorgeous ligament, this bond of union.”
Well, I can’t imagine any such transformation of one of America’s most dreary streets. But, delay or not, University Avenue will have a light rail line.