Lori Sturdevant: Working toward the train in vain

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2008 - 4:30 PM

The governor's Central Corridor veto undercut his Met Council chairman and more.

The guy whose job nobody at the Capitol coveted last week was Metropolitan Council chairman Peter Bell.

For months, Bell had been the face of the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line. He pushed hard to get $70 million for the line between Minneapolis and St. Paul into Gov. Tim Pawlenty's bonding recommendations and in the Legislature's bonding bill.

On Monday, Pawlenty -- Bell's boss -- vetoed his own Central Corridor recommendation. He left us scribblers to speculate about his intentions. Did he want to kill the project and please those in his party who still consider light rail a form of social engineering? Or did he want to reserve it as a bargaining chip for future dealmaking with DFLers?

Whatever his intentions, he evidently didn't share them in advance with Bell, who says he wasn't consulted before the governor whacked the legs out from under his credibility.

"The governor has concerns that go beyond Central Corridor," Bell said with a sigh. "I don't think it's his job to make my life easy."

Bell quickly issued a damage-control release. He said that "the Central Corridor project has not been derailed" and that there's still time and bonding capacity sufficient for the state to pony up the money needed to satisfy federal requirements.

True enough. But right now, time and money aren't the project's biggest impediments. Bell's boss is.

The release also allowed that "it should come as no surprise that the governor had to line-item veto a number of projects in the bonding bill, due to its size."

That line made Bell's problems worse. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the Fourth District DFLer whose help Bell had sought to open the federal checkbook for Central Corridor, seized on it at the next day's bash-a-thon news conference.

"When I pick up the paper today and read that Chairman Bell was not surprised by the veto, after every single one of us had his assurance, if we came down to the governor's number, we had a handshake -- it makes me wonder, what is the state's commitment ... on everything else the governor has put on my desk?" McCollum asked. "Your word is your bond. I can't begin to tell you what this has done to undermine confidence in reaching agreements and consensus in a bipartisan way."

That had to sting. At age 56, with a résumé that includes corporate and nonprofit executive positions, a stint on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and more than five years at the helm at the Met Council -- a full-time job with a part-time salary -- Bell is a serious public policymaker. He didn't deserve to be placed in a situation in which he looks, at best, ineffectual.

"I value my word and my honor above everything," Bell said later last week. "To the extent this calls into question my word and my honor, I am deeply frustrated."

Frustrated, but not bowed -- or bowing out. Bell sincerely believes that the Twin Cities needs the transit spine the Central Corridor will provide.

He is persistent, and his record shows he can be persuasive. He helped take the governor from mild hostility toward transit in 2002 to support for Northstar commuter rail and bus rapid transit on Interstate 35W today. He thinks he can bring Pawlenty around on the Central Corridor in time to file a final design application with the feds in September.

One of his predecessors, Curt Johnson, says that if anyone can do that, it's Bell.

"Peter has been just exemplary," said Johnson, who headed the Met Council for Gov. Arne Carlson from 1995 to 1998. "He had to build a bridge before he could stand on it," between "people who want the Council to go away and people who expect the Council to do something to shape the metro area as it grows."

Pawlenty's Central Corridor veto calls into question the strength of that bridge -- and more. Would a governor who really believes in transit's value turn this project into a political hostage and risk its standing with federal funders? Would one who really appreciates the work of his Met Council chairman undermine it?

And is the currently configured Met Council -- an unelected body, beholden to the governor who appoints it -- the right entity to develop and operate the nonauto transportation network a prosperous metro area is going to need in the 21st century?

It's notable that the transportation bill that was passed over Pawlenty's veto in February gives county commissioners, not the Met Council, control of the transit money raised by a new quarter-cent sales tax. After what Pawlenty did to the Central Corridor and Peter Bell last week, look for the Legislature to find other ways to vest regional governing authority in groups of elected county commissioners, rather than the gubernatorially controlled Met Council.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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