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Rail projects face hurdles in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS - Proposed commuter rail projects north and south of the Twin Cities face many stops before receiving construction funding. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, joined by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other transportation officials, Tue...

MINNEAPOLIS - Proposed commuter rail projects north and south of the Twin Cities face many stops before receiving construction funding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, joined by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other transportation officials, Tuesday toured the southern point of the planned Northstar commuter rail project, running from Minneapolis northwest through a growing suburban area. Peters applauded the project but said a final decision on roughly $156 million in federal funding will not be made until this fall.

Other proposed passenger rail lines that now are only being studied, such as the Red Rock corridor project southeast of St. Paul and another that would link Duluth and the Twin Cities, will have to be judged on their own merits, Pawlenty said.

"All of them have to meet the cost-effectiveness criteria," added Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also is state transportation commissioner.

The Northstar line, extending from near the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, is a good example of a transportation project designed to maximize ridership and reduce congestion, Peters said.

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Ridership estimates and construction and operating costs are key factors the federal government considers when deciding what local transportation projects it will help fund, officials said.

"When you have the right formula together, you can make these projects very, very successful," she said.

Building new rail lines serving other areas around the Twin Cities is a priority for Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, his spokesman said. John Schadl said Oberstar, who represents northeastern Minnesota's 8th District and is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, believes those projects eventually will earn federal funding.

Also Tuesday, Peters told regional transportation officials that the next federal highway funding bill should not reflect existing law, which she said contains a "staggering array" of special interest programs at the expense of core transportation initiatives.

"They drain funding away from the formula programs that have been the very bedrock of building road construction, road maintenance and relieving congestion over time," Peters told the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Peters, a President Bush appointee, called for a fresh look at the nation's transportation needs before new federal highway legislation is written, probably in late 2009. She criticized the current law for its $24 billion in earmarked, or targeted, spending.

That funding made up only about 10 percent of total spending in the 2005 legislation, Schadl said. "This gives members the ability to go back home, listen to the people in their communities and then direct that funding where those communities need it directed," he said.

Peters also said that while urban areas such as the Twin Cities struggle with congestion, rural areas have their own transportation challenges.

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For instance, she said, the corn ethanol boom is changing traffic patterns on Midwest rural roadways as trucks are hauling corn to ethanol plants rather than local grain storage facilities.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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