Rails, trails take hit in bonding committee vote

Howes, aide

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 some long-planned rail and trail 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 governmental 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, a planned 155-mile passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Duluth that 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 other from The twin Cities to Rochester, would lose $26 million 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 funds that Florida rejected.

While much of the project is to be funded 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?”

Backers of a pair of trails that would lose funding asked that the decision be changed.

Public Works Director Bradley Green of Detroit Lakes and City Administrator Jonathan Smith of Frazee wanted $1.5 million to build the Heartland Trail between their cities to be preserved. Most of the money would be used to build an underpass at U.S. 10 on the east side of Detroit Lakes.

Heartland eventually would connect Park Rapids and Moorhead.

Delays since the money originally was approved in 2008 are fixed, Smith said, and the trail work is ready to proceed.

“We are full steam ahead,” he said.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, argued on behalf of keeping $950,000 for the Mesabi Trail to connect the Bear Head Lake and Vermilion state parks in northeastern Minnesota.

Many of the cancelations from past bonding bills are amounts that were not needed because the projects came in less than expected or they never materialized.

Among the cancelations are:

  • $1.4 million for the Greenleaf State Recreation Area near Litchfield.
  • $850,000 in conservation projects.
  • $9,000 for art at the Luverne Veterans Home.
  • $130,000 for work at Hastings Veterans Home.
  • $4,000 for renovation of Silver Bay Veterans Home.
  • $22 million for Minneapolis Planetarium.

Dill (front), Manzoline

Green (front), Smith

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