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Northstar money preserved in House bonding bill

ST. PAUL (AP) -- The Minnesota House on Tuesday sent the strongest signal yet that a long-planned commuter rail line connecting Minneapolis and growing communities along Interstate 94 is on the verge of reality.

For the first time, the House voted to set aside money -- $10 million -- for construction of the 40-mile, $265 million line. Supporters say the Northstar Commuter Rail will be used by 5,600 riders a day but opponents argue it will do little to ease congestion northwest of the Twin Cities.

"This is a huge milestone," said Rep. Kathy Tinglestad, R-Andover.

The Northstar project was the most precarious in a state borrowing package the House approved 121-12. It authorizes $816 million in public works, with $781 million of that long-term debt borne by state taxpayers and the rest by the state college system.

The bill is stocked with projects to keep construction crews around the state busy: In Rochester, dental clinics and science centers would be renovated at the technical college. In Blue Earth County, the Vermillion River dam would get fixed. For Stearns County, there's grant money to link the Lake Wobegon trail and the Central Lakes State Trail.

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A prison expansion in Faribault accounts for the biggest chunk ($84 million), while a grant to design the last stretch of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway in Minneapolis is the smallest item ($50,000).

House Capital Investment Chairman Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, described the package as "affordable and prudent."

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, had a slightly different take. "This bill is half-baked but it is baked enough that we can get this into the negotiation process," he said.

The bill is about $200 million smaller than a proposal approved by the Senate. Negotiators from the two chambers are likely to begin meeting next week to work out a compromise version they can send to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose own package is similar in size to the House version.

"I can do some squeezing and keep it a really good bill. But if I have to dismantle it, I'm going to have problems with that," said Senate Capital Investment Chairman Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.

Pawlenty also weighed in Tuesday, saying he wants to see a bill soon so some projects can be worked into the about-to-begin construction season. Pawlenty demanded that a final bill contain money for a biotechnology building that would be a partnership between the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, and the Northstar funding.

"If there are certain things that aren't in there I'll veto the whole bill," Pawlenty said.

On lopsided votes, legislators defeated a series of amendments that would have stripped the Northstar money or added hurdles for planners before state funding goes through.

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Republican Rep. Mark Olson of Big Lake, the last stop on the line, tried unsuccessfully to remove the Northstar money, telling colleagues there was "no evidence whatsoever of substantive congestion relief."

"Those who ride the train will be free of congestion, but what about the people who are left on the highway," he said. "We are making a grave mistake here and we are really going to regret it."

The $10 million for Northstar is shy of the $37.5 million in state money sought by project advocates. It's unclear whether the federal government will release its matching money for Northstar if the state doesn't fully fund its share. Both Pawlenty and the Senate have recommended the full amount.

Tinglestad fired off "Thank You" notes to colleagues who sided with her. She's confident that the $37.5 million will come through in the end, a capstone to five years of pushing the project.

"Typically, the third time is the charm, but this project took a few more years," she said.

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