Putting the brakes on the Northern Lights Express?Minnesota House committee votes to remove rail, trail, other funding.
By: Don Davis, Duluth News Tribune
ST. PAUL — A Minnesota House committee that usually approves spending money to build government facilities voted Tuesday to call back $59 million already approved from as far back as 1994.
The bill would stop the Northern Lights Express, a planned 155-mile passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Duluth, and other projects in their tracks, as well as others that have not started as quickly as some lawmakers want. The bill also cancels spending that no longer is needed.
Saving money is the reason behind the effort, House Capital Investment Chairman Larry Howes, R-Walker, said. The money the committee wants to cancel was supposed to be borrowed and the state would save money by not paying interest.
While the $9 million that would be saved in interest payments in the next two years is not much compared to a $5 billion budget deficit, “that would add to the pile” needed to balance the state budget, Howes said.
The bill faces a doubtful future with Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton, who promotes a big public works bill in an effort to create jobs. No Senate version of the Howes bill has been introduced.
Regardless of the bill’s outcome, Howes said, the committee vote makes a point to government agencies proposing projects: “If they are not ready, don’t come in and ask.”
The bill goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, where Howes said it is nearly certain to pass.
Committee members took a voice vote on the bill, but it was obvious that Republicans voted for it and Democrats against.
One of the best-known projects that the bill would defund is the Northern Lights Express, which is not favored by many Republicans who now control the state House and Senate. It and other rail projects, including a St. Paul-to-Chicago project and one from the Twin Cities to Rochester, would lose the $26 million that legislators approved for them in 2009.
Bob Manzoline, who works with Northern Lights, said loss of the money would pretty much stop the project. And it would come at a time when the state hopes to get at least some of $2.4 billion in federal money that Florida rejected.
While much of the project is to be paid for by Washington, 20 percent must come from local and state governments. Manzoline said local governments cannot afford the local share.
Northern Lights so far has cost $3.5 million.
Bernie Arseneau of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said the rail money approved two years ago could not be spent until this year because the state’s rail plan was not finished until 2010.
“We are now ready to spend that $26 million,” he said.
Of that money, $9 million was designated for Northern Lights, he said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that existing rail projects need substantial annual operating funds from the state, which cannot afford another line that does not pay for itself.
“The people cannot afford the over-extension of promises that have been brought forth in the past,” he said.
To that, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia responded: “If we hadn’t built a highway system, where would we be?”
Also among the cancelations are:
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.