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Transportation panels get warmed up

Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers have another week and a half before they report to spring training, but Minnesota legislators were already suited up Monday for a joint House-Senate hearing on the makings of a landmark transportation bill they hope to pass in the session that convenes March 8.

Scott Dibble

Scott Dibble

It wasn’t the informal reconvening of last year’s transportation conference committee that Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, had wanted. The House speaker put the kibosh on that idea on procedural grounds, Dibble said in an interview: “Kurt Daudt said no.”

So it was more like a light game of catch. The members of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Division and the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee got a refresher on where the conference committee left off last year, with staff presenting side-by-side comparisons of the House and Senate versions of an omnibus transportation and appropriations bill.

Last year’s session ended with only a lights-on transportation bill enacted into law, and the side-by-sides laid out some wide gulfs, such as on funding, that remain to be bridged.

But Monday’s joint hearing also brought into the open the teamwork Dibble and Kelly have been building during the interim’s off-season, in a series of meetings the pair had over coffee as well as with Minnesota Department of Transportation officials and representatives of the governor’s office.

Kelly told the joint panel he found meaning in “just the fact of both the Senate and the House and the Senate being here.” He also reiterated that he never expected a big transportation bill out of last year’s session, considering it a two-year project.

Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly

“We do realize that in the process here, the end result is going to be based on compromise,” Kelly said. “And it’s going to be a transportation package that we look forward to from a long-term perspective, and that is why we’re here. From the standpoint of actually making comments on specific proposals at this time — that’s not what this was about. This was to get us all talking again, frankly, and on the same page, so we realize where we’re at.”

Had it been an informal reunion of last year’s conference committee, Dibble said in an interview, they would have been able to “go into a little more critique of each other’s proposals,” setting the stage for a subsequent meeting, figuring out where they could accommodate each other and what they couldn’t accept, getting “rough parameters set out,” rather than just revisiting and reacquainting themselves with where work left off last summer.

The membership of last year’s conference committee was drawn from members of the two committees, Dibble said, but not all conference committee members were in attendance for Monday’s meeting.

Dibble said he has sensed a shift among Republicans at the meeting toward embracing transit as a fundamental part of the transportation package. Responding to a query by email in the midst of news of his decision not to seek re-election in November, Kelly said he had not heard anything new from committee members but was satisfied with the first part of the meeting.

Rail safety

The second half of the hearing was devoted to rail safety, with testimony from MnDOT staff members and railroad company, union and trade association representatives.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said in an interview his ears perked up during a MnDOT presentation about the federal Fast Act transportation legislation that recently passed.

Frank Hornstein

Frank Hornstein

Hornstein succeeded two years ago in increasing MnDOT enforcement of federal railroad track standards, paid for by the railroads.

The four state inspectors hired as a result of Hornstein’s legislation found 2,219 rail safety defects and 12 more serious rail safety violations, Tim Spencer, MnDOT manager of freight planning, told the joint committee.

Hornstein was surprised and wanted to know more.

With non-critical safety defects such as loose bolts, railroads have 30 days to make the repair, Spencer said. The more serious safety violations need to be addressed immediately and the inspectors can shut down rail traffic until they’re addressed.

“If there are 12 serious safety violations, I think it would be helpful to know what they are, where they are, do they involve routes that include oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials, how quickly they were fixed,” Hornstein responded. “These are very serious issues and I hope we can have some transparency related to that.”

Late Tuesday, Hornstein said he hadn’t heard back yet but would be sending a request for more information about the rail violations deemed serious. He said he is working on rail safety legislation to be introduced this session. After the meeting Hornstein made a half-joking overture to Reps. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, and Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, in whose comments he’d sensed potential co-sponsors for a bill to further increase the number or rail inspectors.

Two men in a room

Alice Hausman

Alice Hausman

It’s unclear whether policy provisions on topics such as rail safety would be included in an omnibus transportation bill or even whether larger fiscal elements of the transportation package could make their way into other bills. Kelly said by email he did not expect rail-safety provisions to get wrapped into an omnibus transportation bill.

Several lawmakers expressed the desire to see transportation legislation arise from compromises hashed out in committee or conference committee.

“This room is packed with people who understand the desire to have a clear and good debate on transportation,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, “but the public hates and I think members hate when everything gets held up until two men go in a room somewhere and there is a deal that closes out the session.”

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