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The day after Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed money for the Central Corridor light-rail line last week, a frustrated Scott Dibble demanded answers.
"Where is Peter Bell?" the Democratic state senator from Minneapolis asked at a news conference. "Is he providing any leadership?"
Fifteen minutes later, Bell -- the Metropolitan Council chairman who has pushed for the line linking Minneapolis and St. Paul -- was in Dibble's office explaining the balancing act he faces as an appointee of a governor who puts controlling spending ahead of mass transit projects.
In a tense meeting, Dibble said, he told Bell that the Met Council chief had been "publicly humiliated" by the governor and that he "was not succeeding" in his job.
For five years, Bell has been seen sympathetically -- even by some of Pawlenty's staunchest critics -- for promoting transit projects within a sometimes unreceptive administration.
But now Bell is getting more scrutiny from those who have lost patience with his efforts.
"I've liked Mr. Bell," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. But Murphy said Bell's response to Pawlenty's veto of $70 million in state money for the Central Corridor -- Bell said he was not surprised by it -- upset him.
"He showed absolutely no outrage at all. [It was like], 'Oh well, that's to be expected. Oh well, la-di-da,'" said Murphy.
Bell declined to be interviewed for this article. But after a public appearance last week, he spoke briefly of his predicament to reporters.
"The Central Corridor is not the number one priority for the governor. It's the number one priority for me as chair of the Met Council," he said. "We do represent this administration, and I do so proudly.
"A lot of people are mad at me, but my skin is pretty thick," Bell said.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Curt Johnson, who was Met Council chairman under former Gov. Arne Carlson, both said they have spoken to Bell since Pawlenty's veto and described him as struggling with his predicament.
Rybak, an enthusiastic rail transit advocate, said Bell has helped him bridge political differences with Pawlenty. But the mayor said that last week was a "tough blow" for Bell, who he said works for a governor who "hangs you out to dry every other week." Bell's prediction that the Central Corridor's funding will ultimately be restored is a long shot given Pawlenty's stance, Rybak said.
"I don't think Arne Carlson would have ever done to me what Pawlenty did to him," said Johnson, who said the Met Council chair has "to get up every morning prepared to be fired or resign over a matter of principle."
Bell, Johnson said, is not the problem. "You've got a governor that not only is not loyal to his own team, but isn't even loyal to his own commitments," he said.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung did not respond to questions regarding Bell and the veto, other than to note in an e-mail that Bell "was aware of the governor's decision to line-item veto the Central Corridor project in advance of the vetoes being issued."
Some critics said Bell should have given project supporters warning that the veto was coming, but a Met Council spokesman said Bell had little warning himself.
Two months ago, Bell received higher marks from DFLers when he met with them for several hours one evening as a sweeping transportation package was introduced at the Capitol. The $6.6 billion proposal, adopted over a veto by Pawlenty, ushered in the first state gasoline tax increase in 20 years and allows Twin Cities metro counties to implement a quarter-cent sales tax for transit projects.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said that he, Dibble and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin met with Bell to help solve how the counties imposing the sales tax would work with the Met Council's own transportation priorities.
While Hornstein said Bell was "receptive and helpful," Dibble was less impressed, saying Bell never offered to try to talk to Pawlenty or Republican legislators about the proposal, or even indirectly give the proposal any "back-channel support," in Dibble's words.
Praise from some
Bell's reputation as a champion of transit who is trapped in the middle politically still earns him praise among many supporters of the Central Corridor -- and even among some of its critics.
Met Council Member Annette Meeks, who has opposed the project, said Bell has been "very courageous" in lobbying for the line despite heavy political odds.
Doug Magnus of Slayton, the lead Republican on the House Transportation Finance Division, said DFLers forced Pawlenty's hand on the Central Corridor project by not being fiscally responsible on the bonding bill.
Magnus added that Bell was caught between "folks trying to bring some sensible reason to this" and many transit advocates who ignore the cost and say, "Katie bar the door, we're going to get all this done."
But Magnus, like others, said he believes the Central Corridor project will eventually be funded.
Steve Dornfeld, a spokesman for the Met Council, said Bell had decided not to comment further publicly on the issue.
Speaking about the project, Dornfeld added: "This thing probably would be dead by now if it hadn't been for Peter Bell."
Staff writer Jim Foti contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388