WASHINGTON - A major spending bill left over from last year's Congress includes $91 million for a pair of long-sought Minnesota rail projects involving the Twin Cities and Big Lake.
One is a final $71.2 million provision to complete the Northstar Corridor commuter rail project from Big Lake to Minneapolis. The other is a $20 million earmark for the planned Central Corridor light-rail line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The money is part of a massive $410 billion bill that the new Congress is rolling out this week, coming on top of the recently enacted $787 billion stimulus bill.
House Democrats, who plan to pass the bill today, see it as a stimulus on top of a stimulus. But the increased spending has come under intense criticism from Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, who have dubbed the bill "the cherry on top of the stimulus sundae."
Either way, the rail money represents two of the state's highest transportation priorities in the spending package, which was stalled last fall in a political battle between the Bush White House and the Democratic-led Congress.
The Northstar line will stretch 40 miles from Minneapolis to Big Lake, stopping in Anoka, Coon Rapids and Elk River. The proposed schedule includes six trains daily in each direction, mostly to serve morning and evening commuters. The project also includes a four-block extension of the Hiawatha light-rail line that now connects downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The Central Corridor, still in the planning stages, would be an 11-mile line running from downtown Minneapolis along University Avenue to the State Capitol and downtown St. Paul. It is estimated to be completed by 2014 at a total cost of $920 million, about half of which would come from Washington.
St. Paul Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who helped secure the funding on the Appropriations Committee, said the Twin Cities' rail projects could eventually tie in with a proposed high-speed train line between Chicago and St. Paul's Union Depot. The proposed rail link to Chicago has been identified by the Obama administration as a top contender for part of the $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the federal stimulus package.
"This ensures that Minnesota remains economically viable in the future," said McCollum. "It stands out for Minnesota being able to compete with other regional hubs across the United States."
The spending measure is expected to come up for a vote on Thursday in the Senate, where Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar also has worked to secure funding for the two rail lines. "These are the types of projects that will help put people back to work and make the investments we need to build a forward-looking transportation system," she said.
Democrats expect passage of the spending bill, which adds more than $20 billion to former President Bush's domestic spending requests for the budget year that ends in September. But Republican leaders in the House, who are calling for a federal spending freeze, have remained outspoken in opposition. House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the bill amounts to "out-of-control" deficit spending
The standoff will put a spotlight on Republicans such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who supports the Northstar line through her district but who has also vowed to oppose congressional earmarks.
Technically, the Northstar money was in the president's budget as the final installment of a federal funding grant agreement, so it's not considered an earmark.
Still, Bachmann signaled on Tuesday that she is likely to vote against the overall spending bill, noting that it represents an 8 percent increase in discretionary spending. "Washington should be committed solely to policies that reduce the financial burdens on American taxpayers," she said.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753