Sixteen-year-old Lisa Klennert was returning home from shopping in Red Wing, Minn., one evening in July 2003, when a car driven by a friend's mom was rear-ended by a semitrailer truck on Hwy. 61 in Frontenac.

The car, which had been waiting to turn left, slid across the highway with the truck and burst into flames. Lisa's friend and her friend's mom were rescued by emergency crews, but Lisa died in the fire.

After the accident, a grieving community pressed its new congressman, Republican Rep. John Kline, to do something. Eager to please his new constituents, Kline secured a federal earmark to add a left-turn lane to the highway. An earmark is funding for a specific project identified by a member of Congress.

But in the five years since, he's grown frustrated as the project has stalled. Construction finally started on Monday, after the Minnesota Department of Transportation came up with the almost $180,000 needed on top of Kline's $560,000 earmark.

Now seeking his fourth term in Congress, Kline cites his experience with the Hwy. 61 project as one of many that have helped shape his disillusionment with the earmark process that is playing a role in his election fight with Democratic challenger Steve Sarvi.

Last year, Kline swore off congressional earmarks, saying they interfere with MnDOT's priorities, promote wasteful spending, and award project money based on the seniority of a district's congressional representation instead of a project's merits.

But in a growing district with a long list of transportation needs, Sarvi feels that options for funding transportation and transit projects should not be taken off the table.

"I'm not talking about building some hall of fame in some small town," he said. "We're talking about big projects that impact the lives of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people."

Buses and trains

Many projects in the Second Congressional District, which includes some or all of Dakota, south Washington, Carver, Scott, Le Sueur, Goodhue and Rice counties, are funded with help from the federal government.

One piece of the 2005 federal highway bill, for example, was a nearly $10 million grant for the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit project in Apple Valley, obtained by Kline and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

A large chunk of a $133 million federal grant to relieve Twin Cities congestion -- which is not an earmark -- is also going to the Second District, to help pay for new bus stations and highway improvements on Interstate 35W and Cedar.

Improvements include converting a high-occupancy vehicle lane between Bloomington and Burnsville to a high-occupancy toll lane and speeding up construction on the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit project, among other projects.

While Kline favors using bus rapid transit to improve the area's transit offerings, Sarvi advocates for a comprehensive solution that also includes the use of existing rail corridors to develop a commuter rail system. Kline feels that a rail system is not as flexible as a bus system, and more expensive.

Sarvi is the former mayor of Watertown, and recently left his job as a city administrator of Victoria to run for Congress. As a city administrator, he said, he worked with MnDOT to develop transportation projects, and worked with a transportation alliance that lobbied Washington officials for funding.

One of Sarvi's most vocal supporters, state Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, called Kline's position "risky."

"I don't want to see us waste money either," said Carlson, who is vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "I don't want us to have [people in Congress] that slip something in just for the glory of it. What I do want is for them to take the initiative to make sure that their districts are represented."

An exporter of funds

Minnesota is a net exporter of federal highway funds, according to Bob Hofstad of MnDOT. That means that the state receives about 92 cents for every dollar that its residents send to Washington. Kline favors a federal gas-tax holiday to temporarily lower gas prices, while Sarvi doesn't, and thinks the revenue should be used to pay for transportation projects.

About 40 percent of the money in the state's transportation budget comes from the federal gas and diesel tax, according to Tony Kellen, president of the Minnesota Public Transit Association, which is a statewide association of public transit providers, funding agencies and advocates.

"To have these ideological positions that say you're opposed to earmarks," Kellen said, "it's not helpful until the whole system is changed."

Hofstad is the director of the program development section for MnDOT's Office of Investment Management. He said that transportation money that is not earmarked in Congress is distributed to the states through funding formulas.

According to Kline, "MnDOT hates earmarks, because it comes in and disrupts their system of setting priorities."

Hofstad said that there are really two kinds of earmarks that MnDOT deals with: There is the kind that Minnesota's elected officials in Washington work together with MnDOT to fund, and pet projects that MnDOT doesn't hear about until it's expected to contribute money to them.

When it comes to the latter, he said, Kline is right.

"We typically don't get enough to do a whole project," he said, which means the money comes from planned projects.

Kline doesn't challenge the validity of projects that officials in his district seek from him, he just believes that projects in his district -- and everyone else's -- should need to compete on their merits, and MnDOT should be able to set its priorities without Congress interfering.

Sarvi doesn't support the congressional "pet project" earmarks either, saying that elected officials should work closely with MnDOT to decide where funds are needed.

"We need to work with all levels of government," Sarvi said, " ... and come up with good plans as to how we can solve these problems and then find the resources to make them happen."

Emily Johns • 952-882-9056