It would take an estimated extra $20 million to $30 million, but that might be a price worth paying, the governor said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday the state may be willing to pay the extra $20 million to $30 million it would cost to include light-rail transit on the Interstate 35W bridge.
Pawlenty's comments came after nearly two weeks of debate and division among state, Minneapolis and federal officials over whether the replacement for the collapsed span should be built with the potential to carry light rail.
Before Pawlenty's comments, Minneapolis officials modified their stance, saying the bridge should have light-rail capacity but need not be built specifically for the Central Corridor line, which is to connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The city's role could be pivotal because, under state law, it will be asked to provide "municipal consent" for the bridge design.
A disagreement over light rail could stall the project for months, jeopardizing the state's plans to push for completion by the end of 2008.
In Pawlenty's strongest statement of support for light rail since the bridge collapse Aug. 1, he said Friday on his weekly radio show: "It does appear from an engineering standpoint, we can build the bridge ... to be LRT-capable. I've sent signals to the mayor, and he's signaled back that the LRT piece is a significant consideration."
Pawlenty was referring to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Rybak has pushed to have light rail on the new span. Its price tag without light-rail readiness is estimated at $250 million or more.
The Republican governor has been less enthusiastic about transit than the DFL mayor.
Pawlenty spoke just minutes before the Minneapolis City Council unanimously adopted a set of principles for the new bridge that include making the structure ready for light rail and bus-rapid transit.
Gubernatorial spokesman Brian McClung said the estimated extra cost of making the bridge LRT-ready is between $20 million and $30 million. McClung said the governor's office would ask the Legislature for bonding authority for the money.
Sen. Steve Murphy, the Red Wing DFLer who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, called Pawlenty's comments on light rail "a huge step in the right direction," and he expressed optimism that the $20 million to $30 million could be found.
Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Committee, reacted positively to the potential funding request.
"I think there is just this universal feeling that if we're looking out 100 years, the bridge should be designed and built to specifications that would allow for transit in the future," the St. Paul DFLer said, adding that legislators from throughout the state are hearing a similar sentiment from constituents.
Last week's letter is dead
Rybak and Pawlenty have had differences on the issue almost since the bridge collapse. At a joint news conference Aug. 7, Pawlenty said he'd give "due diligence" to studying transit on the bridge.
But he also signaled that the bridge must be built expeditiously.
Rybak made it clear he wanted the potential for a rail line on the span built to endure for the next 100 years.
On Friday, Rybak called Pawlenty's LRT comments "major" and a welcome shift from even a week ago.
Last Friday, Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who is also the lieutenant governor, and Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell sent a letter to the governor concluding "the inherent disadvantages of including LRT do not justify the expense and delays that would result from further study."
Bell said Friday that letter is "dead" because it referred specifically to running the Central Corridor across the bridge, something Minneapolis is no longer pursuing. He said it's clear that the federal money can't go to the light-rail line so the issue becomes a matter of state priorities.
"The Legislature is going to have to consider: Is this the best use of $10 million to $30 million for transit funding?" he said, adding that the funding would go toward a line that might not be built for 10 to 15 years. He noted that the bridge is already going to have bus rapid transit.
MnDOT's Bob McFarlin, assistant to Molnau, agreed that the letter pertained only to the Central Corridor. But he said Friday that the bridge could be built LRT-ready using federal funds without triggering additional environmental reviews, which could result in additional expense and delays.
Rybak said he and the governor as well as their staffs have continued talking about compromises, including evening phone calls to each other's homes as late as Thursday night.
"We're all working as cooperatively and as quickly as we can, and we're making great progress," Rybak said.
On his radio show Friday, Pawlenty was upbeat about reaching an agreement with Minneapolis "somewhat soon."I'm optimistic we can get this tied up," he said.
The City Council's view
In Minneapolis City Hall, elected officials noted Friday that they, too, had shifted from an initial position of wanting the Central Corridor line on the replacement bridge to wanting merely potential for light rail. The Central Corridor is already mapped out between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, running over the Washington Avenue bridge.
Pawlenty's comments were welcome but not surprising to the council members working on the issue.
"MnDOT has moved; we have moved," Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said.
But Glidden, Council Vice President Robert Lilligren, and Transportation and Public Works Chairwoman Sandy Colvin Roy say it wasn't just Minneapolis pushing the governor, but communities at both ends of the I-35W corridor that wanted the potential for rail from their communities to downtown. "It was the unified voice from all parts of the metro," Lilligren said.
As for where the money will come from, Glidden said, "There's no question the Legislature is going to have to consider that."
Staff writers Curt Brown, Bob von Sternberg and Jim Foti contributed to this report. Rochelle Olson 612-673-1747
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