Stop That Train!

Light-rail boosters insist their multimillion-dollar project is finally leaving the station. But first Shoreview legislator Phil Krinkie has a few questions about inflated budgets, bid rigging, and some mysterious memos.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

State representative Phil Krinkie takes a midmorning swig of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and glances out the second-story window of his St. Paul office, at yesterday's dirty snow and today's stream of traffic along Interstate 94. He points to a cluster of orange barrels blocking a freeway on-ramp: The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDoT) opened that concrete chute last year as a bypass for high-occupancy vehicles, he explains, but the design proved problematic. Cars in the sane lane couldn't always see traffic on the regular ramp. Hence the barricades, slated to remain until the ramp can be improved in the spring.

Problem is, notes Krinkie, the barrels are routinely knocked down. A couple of times a week, MNDoT workers trot out to prop them back up. "Every time I see these guys," he chuckles, "I think, 'These are the same guys that are going to build a billion-dollar trolley system?'"

"Billion-dollar trolley system" is Krinkie's derisive term for the planned 11.5-mile light-rail-transit (LRT) line connecting the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Mall of America, and downtown Minneapolis via the Hiawatha corridor along Highway 55. After years on the drawing board, the project now seems set to go with a capital budget of $548.6 million.

At least that's the official cost. But Krinkie and other skeptics say light rail's sponsors in state government and elsewhere have long known that the real price tag could creep much higher--and that they've either kept that fact under wraps or not included key numbers in the project's budget.

"The total cost to the public is certainly going to approach a billion dollars," charges Krinkie. It's a mantra he's repeated countless times in recent months, alienating light-rail supporters at the capitol and throughout the halls of metro-area governments. To streetcar fans like Gov. Jesse Ventura and MNDoT commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, Krinkie has come to resemble a political pit bull with his teeth in his prey's pants leg--an indefatigable yapper who is still fighting a battle many believe he lost long ago.

With his brown tasseled loafers, cropped sandy brown hair, tie, and gray sportcoat, Krinkie doesn't look the part of the rebel. He looks like what he is--a small-business operator who also happens to be a suburban Republican lawmaker. His father founded the Snelling Company, a heating and cooling firm in St. Paul's Midway district, in 1931; Krinkie took over almost two decades ago. The flyers on a table out front exhort customers to "Save Now With Our Winter Specials."

Playing fiscal watchdog has become a hobby of Krinkie's. A few years back he raised the ire of then-governor Arne Carlson with his vociferous criticism of a publicly funded baseball stadium. "Some people have referred to me as cheap," he admits. "I like to think of myself as a quality buyer."

Over the past year MNDoT has installed signs proclaiming, "LRT Is On Track!" throughout the Hiawatha corridor. Booklets issued by the department feature computer-generated images of sleek, futuristic trains zooming along tree-lined tracks; the first trains are slated to run in 2004. But Krinkie and others say there are still several ways for the wheels to come off the deal.

The project currently faces two lawsuits, one of which last week prompted a judge to issue an order sharply criticizing MNDoT's bidding process. At the capitol, House Republican leaders say they will soon announce a plan to try to yank $100 million appropriated for light rail in 1998 and '99. There's also talk of the GOP-controlled House firing off a resolution to Congress, imploring the feds not to fund the project.

And then there's Krinkie himself. The Shoreview lawmaker has filed a lawsuit charging that MNDoT failed to perform a cost-effectiveness study as mandated by statute; uncovered a passage in state law that he says taints the bidding process; and, finally, dredged up documents from MNDoT's own consultants that he says show state officials knew the project would cost $100 million more than they were telling legislators last spring. "I've spent six months digging," he says. "I feel like I'm on an archaeological dig."

 

Krinkie, now in his tenth year as a lawmaker, knows his way around the capitol well enough to understand how money for light rail came to be appropriated last year. It was the usual late-session deal-brokering, he says: The Senate got money for education. The House got tax breaks. And the governor got $60 million for trains (on top of an additional $40 million appropriated in 1998). Krinkie voted against the final package, but he wasn't surprised at its passage: "What is done, as everyone knows, is horse-trading," he says.

It wasn't until after the Legislature had packed up and gone home for the year that Krinkie began to dig deeper into the numbers. A 1997 study had estimated the cost of the project at $371.6 million. By 1998 that had been revised to $400 million, and later $446 million. That last one was the figure used in Governor Ventura's budget request last year, and the one MNDoT representatives quoted over and over at the Legislature, according to Krinkie and his confederates.

In July, a short two months after lawmakers had adjourned, MNDoT publicly unveiled a new project budget: Suddenly, the rail line's cost had ballooned by more than $100 million, to nearly $550 million. At the same time, the scope of the project had shrunk from what had been talked up during the session. The line would end at Nicollet Mall rather than in the Warehouse District. There would be 15 stops instead of 18, and each train would have two cars instead of three. Krinkie concluded that he and his colleagues had been duped ("at the very least, the Department of Transportation misrepresented information," he says now)--and he was determined to prove it. He'd already sent a letter to Commissioner Tinklenberg on June 21, requesting "all memos, documents, files, and e-mails" related to light rail, with particular attention to "all documents related to cost and ridership projections."

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