Dakota County's leaders and its U.S. representative publicly celebrated the start of work on Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit this week, but in a meeting together afterward, it was clear that Rep. John Kline wasn't about to change his mind about seeking federal funding to help pay for it.

The Lakeville Republican's refusal to go after earmarks, in which federal legislation sets aside money for projects in legislators' home districts, has caused consternation locally as county officials try to secure the remaining $11.9 million needed for the BRT line, as well as other road and transit projects. With a six-year federal transportation bill in the works, Dakota County officials are afraid their projects will be left out.

"How do we position ourselves in this congressional session or the next in terms of making sure the money keeps coming to us to help finish this project?" board chairwoman Kathleen Gaylord asked Kline during the roughly 30 minute meeting on Tuesday.

Kline said he would support giving the project a chance to compete for federal money and would continue to lobby for it on its merits, but he did not pledge financial support.

"I will not earmark," he said. Kline and others criticize earmarks as wasteful and say they are too often doled out based political influence rather than a project's merits.

Earlier, addressing the crowd gathered to celebrate the new bus rapid transit station at 155th Street and Cedar Avenue, Kline said he was an "absolute believer" in the bus rapid transit project, but he also noted that more local money would be needed to complete it.

The station, with its swooping roof and skyway over Cedar Avenue, will be one of the first physical manifestations of the $76 million bus rapid transit project -- touted as light rail on rubber wheels -- that has been years in the planning. The station will be completed in December.

The $11.9 million is needed to complete a bus lane from 140th Street in Apple Valley to 181st Street in Lakeville. The county is also seeking the money from the state and, if necessary, will look to a multi-county fund that collects quarter-cent sales tax proceeds.

"We need that. We need that within the next 12 months," Commissioner Will Branning said in the meeting with Kline. "I, as chair of the regional rail [authority], cannot sign contracts unless we've got money in hand."

Kline reiterated his support for the Cedar Avenue project, noting that he had secured money for it before swearing off earmarks in 2007 but said he would not specifically ask for further funding. If there were a way to authorize the project to compete for federal transportation funds without actually earmarking a set amount -- a possibility put forth by county officials that is not yet certain since the language and structure of the six-year transportation bill hasn't been assembled -- he said he would support it.

"It's a very, very good project. I'm sold on the project," Kline said. "I want to see that there's a way the money can flow to this project without engaging in that horrific pork barrel earmarking."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056