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Michel Euler, Associated Press - Ap

Congressman Cravaack: Put the brakes on rail line

  • Article by: CHIP CRAVAACK
  • October 18, 2011 - 9:22 PM

Regrettably, bipartisan consensus has been in short supply in our nation's capital, but one thing we all agree on is that with our ailing economy and with millions of people out of work, creating jobs is the No. 1 priority for the country.

Ideas on ways to create jobs are most welcome, but we must recognize that we are not in much of a position to divert from a "first things first" approach.

Proponents of the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) high-speed rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities want the government to simply make it happen, and the basis of their argument is job creation.

But it isn't that straightforward. I disagree with an approach that costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to create "a" job.

The passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as "stimulus," reportedly saved or created more than 2.5 million jobs. What is often not mentioned is that the price tag was $821 billion, of which only about 6 percent went toward transportation infrastructure projects.

To date, $719 billion of this sum has been spent. It is simple math to conclude that the cost per job thus far is $287,600.

Backers of a high-speed rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities claim the project would cost about $750 million, and they say the federal government could pick up 80 percent of the cost.

Considering the federal government is already borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it is currently spending, the idea of adding more to our debt load doesn't make sense.

We just averted a debt crisis, and the solution we reached doesn't reduce our massive deficit -- it merely slows its growth. We still have a long way to go.

The wisest course of action for us is to not spend money on a venture that can't pay for itself. Instead, we must first attend to the crumbling roads, the bridges in urgent need of repair and the incomplete highway projects that we have throughout the state.

Recently, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that 1,154 bridges are "structurally deficient" in Minnesota. That's 8.4 percent of the state's bridges in need of attention.

Yet, some people are clamoring for additional spending projects.

Why is our transportation system in this condition? Because prior Congresses not only raided the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for an increasing number of government programs, they also diverted funds from the federal gas tax away from maintenance of our roads and bridges.

Gas-tax funds that should have been set aside for transportation purposes were spent elsewhere -- on things like bike path bridges, flower plantings and historical preservation.

The federal government recently awarded a $5 million grant for NLX engineering studies.

Considering that the project's future is uncertain, and considering the proposed railway's unprofitability for at least the first two years, should we not responsibly wait until more lucrative conditions permit such a project?

I have come to realize that in Washington World the idea of $5 million doesn't register as real money, but to Minnesota communities, school districts and small business, such funds are desperately needed.

In November 2010, it was announced that the planned extension of the North Star commuter-rail line from downtown Minneapolis to St. Cloud had been indefinitely delayed because projected ridership was not sufficient to qualify for federal funding.

So, here we have a situation in which an existing rail system (that was nearly 20 percent over projected costs when it was completed) now does not qualify for federal funding because of low ridership.

Instead of pursuing a new rail line, let's first spend our time, efforts and limited resources fixing what we have. Let's complete the pending projects that have been identified as high priorities.

The idea of a high-speed commuter-rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities may make economic sense in the future, but it does not make sense at this time.

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Chip Cravaack, a Republican, represents Minnesota's Eighth District in the U.S. House.

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