(AP) - Minnesota transportation officials should know by this fall whether $156 million in federal money for the Northstar commuter rail line will come through.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Tuesday that Minnesota should be confident that the money will materialize.
She got an up-close look at the early phase of construction during a visit to downtown Minneapolis. What she saw "makes us confident we will get over the finish line this fall," she said.
She added, "We're not going to let a project that is designed to get commuters moving get stuck in some kind of bureaucratic backup."
Northstar planners briefed Peters on the project while standing on a bridge that was slated to be partially torn down later Tuesday. In its place, there will be tracks connecting the 11-mile Hiawatha light-rail line with the Northstar hub, meaning riders will eventually be able to take trains from beyond the northern suburbs to the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport.
The $320 million Northstar project will run 40 miles between Minneapolis and Big Lake.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty acknowledged the state was going out on a limb by beginning construction without the federal commitment, but he said it shows that state and local leaders feel good about their chances.
"It's a bit of a risk," Pawlenty said. "But we're pretty confident we're going to get this full-funding agreement. If you wait until everything is guaranteed, you don't do anything."
"Cutting ribbons is nice, but the governor needs to look forward, to get our state moving on transit and not continue to repeat his mistakes."
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said local governments -- Anoka, Sherburne and Hennepin counties -- are the ones bearing the risk because their dollars are being tapped first. He said the state money won't be released until federal dollars are authorized.
The Northstar line is in competition with about a dozen other rail projects currently under consideration.
If all goes well, Northstar trains will begin running in November 2009. The 40-mile rail line will have stations in Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Minneapolis. There has been talk about eventually extending that line to St. Cloud as project boosters originally wanted.
Legislative Democrats said Pawlenty's vetoes of recent transportation packages have caused the state to fall behind on mass transit.
"Cutting ribbons on projects like this is nice, but the governor needs to look forward to get our state moving on transit and not continue to repeat his mistakes," Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a news release.
Minnesota could soon be chasing more federal money for another rail project.
Next year, state lawmakers will consider whether to put state dollars toward a light rail line linking Minneapolis and St. Paul through the so-called Central Corridor.
The pricetag currently sits at $932 million and the hope is that half of it will come from the federal government.
A borrowing bill Pawlenty vetoed this spring contained $40 million for the Central Corridor project.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said he expects to press a state funding request next year that is much larger; he said the federal request will come years down the road.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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