Here’s another fine mess light rail has gotten us into, Ole. While amusing in a slapstick sort of way, the tussle over the train running through the University of Minnesota campus down Washington Avenue or looping north of the U campus through Dinkytown, seriously, ought put to rest the flummery that the Central Corridor project is about transportation and the mobility of the community. Not and never was. It’s about political clout.

A page-one Pioneer Press news story by Dave Orrick last week offered the keen observation that the route rhubarb is really a clash of cultures – academia vs. politics.

Where Ole and Lena taxpayer (who are footing the bill for the Washington Avenue route while picking up the tab for the U’s lobbying against the Washington Avenue route) fit into that culture clash is pretty clear. We don’t. Never have. Public input on the Central Corridor has always been of the “What kind of cheese do you want on your hamburger?” variety: A lot of meetings about the best way to implement light rail, but the tax-paying public never had a viable voice in the yea or nay decision.

So, forgive me if I find it amusing when (also at taxpayer expense) University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg pens a 23-page legal memo to federal officials claiming that the U is being railroaded. Ya think, Mark? How do you think we taxpayers feel about the Central Corridor.

First, we’re told to get on board because light rail will relieve traffic congestion. Then we hear Hennepin County Commission Peter McLaughlin, chair of the new board that will spend the transit sales tax monies, say congestion relief is only a “secondary objective.” The primary purpose of light rail transit is “guiding development.” Then he says, as we critics have been saying all along, the Central Corridor will actually increase congestion along the route. Not to worry, however, a legislative session-ending deal found 8 million tax dollars to help camouflage that problem.

The Met Council reads Rotenberg’s memo as a challenge to its competence. It should be used to criticism. A condition of the $6.6 billion transportation tax increase was creating an additional layer of governance charged with spending the quarter-cent metro-area sales tax for transit. Still, the kids couldn’t play nice. The ink on the tax increase was still wet when the headline read, “”Fight erupts over new sales taxes for transit: At issue whether money should be used to bail out Met Council.” The Met Council continues to run the railroad.

Local officials were critical of Rotenberg’s memo for more than just its content, however. They said the memo was naïve because it invited scrutiny from federal bureaucrats. Now I’ll be at the tail-end of the line when it comes to recommending federal scrutiny of anything, but when “we don’t want the feds looking too closely at what we’re doing” is a Central Corridor strategic concern, that ought to ring a few bells with someone about project viability, shouldn’t it?

It doesn’t with state Rep. Alice Hausman, who chaired the capital-projects committee, however. Her response was accusing the University of “arrogance.”

“The U is simply accustomed to getting their own way,” she said.

Gotta ask, Rep. Hausman, where you were on the U’s arrogance issue when Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered his initial bonding recommendations?

Pawlenty included a rather paltry $225 million in bonding for local roads and bridges. Roads and bridges were a legislative “priority,” as I recall. But U President Robert Bruininks opined in the Star Tribune that roads and bridges shouldn’t be paid for at the expense of higher education. He complained that Pawlenty’s proposal didn’t give the U its traditional 35 percent of the bonding recommendation – only 23 percent.

And Hausman and the Legislature listened. They passed $6.6 billion in tax increases on Minnesotans for the statewide transportation “priority” and then borrowed another $800 million on the taxpayers’ credit card for local hockey arenas, bike trails and giving the U just about everything it asked for and, oh yes, $70 million for the Central Corridor. Arrogant, perhaps?

 Whichever side prevails in this tussle of titans, of this be certain: The academics and the politicians will ultimately come together and have a great makeup Kumbaya, and the Central Corridor project will be built regardless of the cost to taxpayers. On both sides there is simply too much arrogance and too much political prestige on the line to hope for any other outcome. And that’s not really all that funny, is it?

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute (www.mnfreemarketinstitute.com). His e-mail address is westover4@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Wednesday June 2.