Normally, a train clamoring down University Avenue amid Twin Cities’ bustle would seem to have little in common with the serenity of rocky cliffs of a forested northern lake. But closing days of legislative sessions are seldom normal. And the political stew that’s brewing at the Capitol includes a deal that would fund the Central Corridor light rail project and a Lake Vermilion State Park.
Both are linked in a supplemental bonding bill that’s being negotiated by legislators who want the $70 million train, and by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who wants the park. Earlier, legislative conferees stripped the park plan out of a bonding bill it sent to Pawlenty, who promptly axed the train project with a line-item veto.
Helping shape a deal to push both projects as the Legislature moves to a May 19 adjournment was the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP), a coalition of 80 statewide environmental groups.
Environmental advocates had been mostly cool to embracing the park. They noted that under Pawlenty’s watch funding for parks and trails had skidded to all-time lows, leading to park closures and maintenance deficits that will take years to overcome.
Parks and Trails Council supported Vermilion
An exception was the nonprofit Parks and Trails Council, which supported Pawlenty’s call last July for the first new state park in years. The council’s longtime lobbyist, Judy Erickson, helped pull together the MEP endorsement of a train-park deal.
“It is time to set aside our differences and look at our common goals,” said MEP Executive Director Steve Morse. “The Central Corridor and Lake Vermilion State Park are two projects crucial to protecting Minnesota’s future.”
The long-sought Central Corridor project would link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul with the metro area’s second light-rail line after the highly successful Hiawatha line.
Helping ease critics’ concern over Pawlenty’s neglect of the state’s parks and trails was that a month ago the governor mostly sheathed his veto pen for some $15 million in trails spending and another $22 million for parks that were included in the Legislature’s earlier bonding bill.
“We’ve had a good year,” said Erickson.
Several questions to be answered
But there are some tricky unknowns that lurk in any deal for Vermilion State Park.
For one, it’s still not clear how much the state would pay U.S. Steel for 2,500 acres that would comprise the park in a parcel adjacent to the present Soudan Mine State Park. The company previously said the land is worth $45 million, even though its assessed valuation is pegged at $13.4 million. Earlier in its bonding bill, the Legislature had a park line for $15 million that included land acquisition and initial planning.
U.S. Steel has given the state until Aug. 1 to close a purchase deal. Unless that happens, the company said it would proceed with plans to subdivide the land for some 150 lake and forest homesites.
Then there’s the St. Louis County Board, whose chairman, Mike Forsman of Ely, has insisted that any park plan include a financial arrangement that would preclude the county losing any tax base; enough money to develop the park to attract 300,000 visitors annually, as Pawlenty has promised; and $4.6 million of state money to match federal funds to fix up “extremely dangerous” portions of Highway 169, which runs in the area of the planned park.
State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL Cook, has said that he’ll oppose any park plan that is not supported by St. Louis County. Bakk, chairman of the powerful Senate Tax Committee, is a lead legislative negotiator with the governor on a range of budget topics, including any supplemental bonding bill for the Central Corridor and Vermilion State Park.