Millions included in spending bill for Minn. transportation

The Northstar Commuter rail line is just one transportation project in Minnesota getting money from the federal spending bill passed by the House and Senate over the weekend.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Over the weekend, Congress approved and President Obama is expected to sign a spending measure that includes millions of dollars for a wide range of pet projects including transportation projects.

The bag of holiday goodies includes money for Minnesota bridges, roads, biking, hiking bus and rail.

In the Twin Cities, there's planning money to push ahead with rebuilding the 169-494 interchange.

There are dollars for the Lowry Avenue bridge in Minneapolis.

There's money to advance an underpass project in Moorhead, an interchange on highway 14 in Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota, $1.2 million for a pedestrian bridge over highway 65 in Isanti, and much more.

"Railroad improvements in southern Minnesota [and] capital grants for some bus purchases," said Margaret Donahue, the executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, the state's largest transportation advocacy group.

Donahue said money for road and bridge projects such as the Hastings Highway 61 bridge is actually coming back to Minnesota.

"I think some of those projects probably are pork."

The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon goes to the federal highway trust fund and from there is doled out and returned to states by formula.

Most of the amounts Donahue said aren't enough to finish a project but rather to keep it going. "This is funding that is used for environmental studies, purchasing right of way, or steps along the way getting a project ready for construction," she said.

And yes, these are earmarks, or as detractors often call them, "pork barrel projects."

There are 5,000 of them in the $1 trillion federal spending bill passed by both the House and the Senate over the weekend and sent to the president's desk.

However, one person's pork is another person's vital project.

That's how Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart feels about the more than $3 million coming to advance the Northstar commuter rail project.

In Erhart's and many others' opinion, Northstar won't be complete until there's rail service all the way to St. Cloud as originally planned.

"I think some of those projects probably are pork," Erhart said. "Nobody that I know of, other than a few anti-rail people think that going to St. Cloud is pork. It may be an earmark but this will serve many many people very well in the future."

Same in Isanti, a community north of the Twin Cities.

The spending bill contains $1.2 million to help pay for a pedestrian bridge there over Highway 65 that cuts through town.

Former Chamber of Commerce president Jaysen Guthmueller said the walking bridge supply a safer route to school for kids living on the other side of town. Guthmueller acknowledged the recession has a few folks wondering about spending the money.

"Looking at the bigger picture, understanding development will pick up, we're probably getting it at a bargain," Guthmueller said. "All in all I think there's good support for it."

The thinking is there's more money to come, perhaps soon.

One thing not part of the $1 trillion spending bill awaiting the president's signature is a military spending component.

Some observers believe the military appropriations measure may be the vehicle for a jobs package sought by some lawmakers and by the president to help address the country's high unemployment rate.