ANOKA -- Grant Grzybowski's apartment building is so close to the tracks, the walls tremble when freight trains rumble past.
It's not a feature for the brochures, but the insurance salesman's eyes twinkle when he ponders crossing the street to a planned commuter train station and using those same tracks for hassle-free trips to a Twins game.
Whether that gleam will ever become anything more is in question, though. The plan for the Northstar line has unexpectedly joined abortion politics and handgun permits as a contender for the most divisive issue at the Legislature this session.
Money for the train has been forced into and yanked out of the bonding bill in the House numerous times in recent weeks. It was ultimately left out of the borrowing bill the House passed, and the Senate's version includes just $8 million of the project's planned $120 million cost. Only Gov. Jesse Ventura's plan includes the full funding.
The dream of backers is for a line that will run from the St. Cloud area to Minneapolis. There it would connect to the Hiawatha Light Rail now under construction, extending the potential of car-free travel to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and the Mall of America. Eventually, other commuter rail lines would extend like spokes into other parts of the state.
In all, the Northstar line would cost $294 million, with half paid by the federal government. It would run along the fast-growing corridor of U.S. Highway 10 and theoretically ease congestion on the roads.
Steve Novak, a former state senator who now lobbies for the train on behalf of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority formed by counties and communities along the line, says if lawmakers don't pass the money, the federal dollars will go to somebody else.
"The thing to remember is that Minnesota taxpayers have already paid for half this train," Novak says. "The question is whether they will pay for the other half, so they can use it."
That's not how opponents see it.
Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, sees the train as a money pit that would never be self sufficient and would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars more than predicted. Others say that, despite its promised 80-mile route, the train essentially will become a suburban commuter vehicle.
"I'll bet you dimes to doughnuts, it's not going to make it out to rural Minnesota," Rep. Doug Peterson, DFL-Madison, said during House debate.
The original bonding bill proposal by House Republicans didn't include money for the train, but with the backing of the chairman, St. Cloud Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach, it was put in the bill in the Capitol Investment Committee. It was then promptly stripped from the bill in another committee, but placed back in the bill on the floor when a majority of Democrats joined 12 Republicans to vote for it.
Once that happened, the bill couldn't reach the super-majority of 60 percent needed to pass bonding bills, and it was shelved for a week, until many of the Republicans, including Knoblach, switched their votes.
Novak says the explanation for the seesawing machinations over the issue lie in Republican gubernatorial politics. Candidate Brian Sullivan opposes the train, and House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, his rival for the GOP's endorsement, can't afford to lose the support of party stalwarts by letting it become law this year, Novak says.
House Speaker Steve Sviggum has another explanation. He says lawmakers are sore that the Hiawatha line is being built, a line that he calls a "boondoggle." He says it's that sentiment that has colored views of the Northstar line.
"If we could, with the flip of a switch, take the money from the light rail corridor and fund the Northstar commuter rail, I think it would be done in the House in the flip of a pen," Sviggum says.
Ventura says the money has to come out of this legislative session, or the entire project is in jeopardy. He says projects in other states are likely to get the federal dollars if Minnesota doesn't come up with its share.
"They have no vision beyond November," Ventura said in an interview. "All they look at is what they have to do to get through the next election."
U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, the Minnesota Democrat who along with U.S. Rep. James Oberstar is responsible for getting the federal funding, says things aren't quite that dire.
"It would slow things down significantly" if legislators don't approve it this session, Sabo said. "There's a bunch of projects coming down the line. You want to get in front of that push, and not behind it."
What happens now is anybody's guess. The train is just one of a half-dozen hot-button issues that have to be settled before the Legislature adjourns.
John Wodele, spokesman for Ventura, hints at actions still to come.
"It isn't over yet. There are discussions that are yet to happen," he said.
Backers claim overwhelming popular support for the idea in the growing communities up and down the line. Greg Roisen isn't so sure. A beer distributor who was having breakfast at Sparky's Cafe in downtown Anoka on a recent morning, Roisen says few back the train.
"It's a small, noisy group that seems to me wants it," says Roisen. "I'm not going to use it. Never would. I would never give up my car and I don't believe most Americans would either."
On the Net:
House File 3618 may be found at http://www.house.state.mn.us
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