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Gov. Carlson clarifies light rail legacy

Says May 6 post about political fights over transit relied on too few sources and failed to quote key players — including him. 

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson

In the process of attempting to sell the notion that deal-making is a legislative virtue, particularly in the current battle over funding for a light rail project, Iric Nathanson (Political fights over light rail projects in Minnesota is nothing new, May 6) tried to recreate the story behind the origin of LRT in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, he relied on too few sources and failed to contact key players, including me.

First of all, there have been a multitude of supporters for mass and rapid transit, dating all the way back to the 1960s when I was on the Minneapolis City Council. But the stumbling block was always costs and the allocation of costs.

When I became Governor in 1991, I inherited a $2.3 billion deficit with virtually all reserves depleted. In addition, our credit rating had been downgraded. My first priority was to stabilize our finances and impose discipline into long-term planning. This meant that any and all programs were examined and evaluated on the basis of need and value as well as affordability. Light rail was no exception.

Yes, there were numerous public officials supporting light rail, but they tended to disappear when the issue of payment arose.

My recollection is that what broke open the door of opportunity was a call from Congressman Marty Sabo who indicated that the Minnesota congressional delegation would support massive federal funding for LRT if I would commit the state’s participation. We examined the numbers and pledged our full support.

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It was the $200 million from the federal government that allowed the final financial piece to fall into place. After all, this represented some 5o percent of the Hiawatha Project. Without the help we received from Congressmen Sabo and Jim Oberstar, light rail never would have become a reality. It was the partnership with the federal government that solved the problem of affordability.

Nathanson further suggests that my support for transit was dependent upon legislative support for St. Paul hockey.  That has as much truth as a Donald Trump tweet.

The reality is that 1998 represented my last shot at obtaining a meaningful bonding bill and my first priority was full funding for the University of Minnesota and higher education. We held firm and the legislature approved $206 million for University projects including a new molecular and cellular building, the Business school, and major improvements to the medical complex, student union, library, etc. The MNSCU system received a record $155 million for major facility enhancements.

However, as Governor I felt my mission was to shepherd all of our projects through the legislative process and that included a hockey arena in St. Paul, light rail and a host of local improvement projects.

It should also be noted that the Republican caucus was reluctant to accept the bill due to its size. I called in those Republican legislators who had projects in the bill but intended to vote against the whole bill. I made it clear that any legislator voting no on this bill would have his local project subject to my line item veto. Many screamed blackmail but, frankly, I just did not think we needed more hypocrites.

The bill passed.

If I may, I would suggest that Governor Dayton refuse to close the session until the legislature passes a solid bonding bill that includes proper and continuing funding for our infrastructure, an on-going commitment to light rail, and sensible funding that provides properly for our health and safety as well as the appropriate needs of higher education.  It is imperative that we move forward.

Respectfully submitted,

Arne H. Carlson