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Central Corridor’s future? Pawlenty’s cagey and DFLers are grim

The surprise line-item veto Gov.

The surprise line-item veto Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave to the Legislature’s $925 million bonding bill, striking $70 million for the Central Corridor LRT line, wasn’t much of a surprise at all: GOP lawmakers had been hinting for weeks that the transit funding would fall to the governor’s pen stroke.

“This is a project still facing serious challenges,” Pawlenty said Monday when he announced his cuts and subsequent signing of the bill, acknowledging that the move would draw attention, if not ire. “We want to pull this project into the maintenance shed for further inspection.”

But to hear some DFL lawmakers tell it, Pawlenty’s veto derailed the project altogether.

Although Pawlenty was cagey Monday about addressing the $70 million again this session, on Tuesday Democratic leaders, including U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, decried the cuts, sounding a grim note. Some county and municipal officials are holding out hope that something can be hashed out. And indeed Capitol insiders and observers were wondering Tuesday what trade-offs — some $298 million of surplus in the Health Care Access Fund to balance the budget or a balanced budget presented to Pawlenty by legislators themselves — could be offered to revive the light rail project.

But in truth, the general feeling is that the issue is dead.

“It’s a disaster for federal funding,” Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said Tuesday. Hornstein is chair of the House Transportation and Transit Policy Subcommittee and something of a transit wonk. “A vast majority of legislators would like to have this project. We can’t formulate a bill he’ll veto again. The governor is playing Russian Roulette.”

Playing politics with federal dollars

The core of the issue is this: The federal government has pledged some $460 million to the $909 million for the Central Corridor project. The state has until September to show that the project is on track, committing $270 million in state and local funds to the project by then, otherwise those federal dollars may be left on the table — and snatched up by some other transit-hungry metro area. The $70 million is seen by many as a key component in keeping the project running and securing money from the feds.

The governor and legislative DFLers may be playing a game of chicken, but Hornstein sounded sincerely grave Tuesday. “There’s no action unless the governor agrees to something,” he said. Lawmakers could draft a stand-alone, “supplemental” bill that deals with getting the money, but Hornstein said he sees no indication that the governor would sign it — and an override of the current veto or a new bill ain’t gonna happen.

“We’re stuck,” Hornstein said. “This is one more transportation mistake in a long line of transportation mistakes the governor has made.”

Pawlenty didn’t close the matter entirely, but he was non-committal at best Monday, offering the need for “another review of this project before we make a final commitment to it.”

Hornstein noted that Pawlenty originally backed the plan, and that on Monday he was intentionally misleading about some aspects of the Central Corridor, including the notion that the state would be responsible for the entire operating costs of the line.

Washington to the rescue?

Hornstein pointed to Pawlenty’s “long, multi-year hostility toward transit.” It’s true that the governor has been tight-fisted with Metro Transit over the years, and generally lukewarm about trains and buses. But it’s also true that all of this could have been avoided if the House and Senate had come up with a bonding bill that wasn’t $100 million over the governor’s preferred dollar amount. Lawmakers showed him up, and the governor returned the favor.

At this point, Pawlenty slashed through so much of the bonding bill, knocking it down to $717 million, that the money could be restored and still come in under Pawlenty’s budget. But it doesn’t appear that the governor is in a compromising mood. In fact, many are looking to U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, to save the project.

In other words, Washington might have to keep the Central Corridor alive, because it’s not likely to happen in St. Paul. (The only lawmaker to offer hope in the cavalcade of DFL leadership at Tuesday’s press conference was state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who said: “At the Capitol, nothing is dead until it’s actually dead, and even then projects can get on life support. And I don’t think this project is dead.)

“[Pawlenty] said it and I have to take him at his word that this isn’t his priority,” Hornstein said. “We’re open to any conversation that would lead to the governor changing his mind.”