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Status Report: Mills-Nolan, LRT cars, apprenticeships

Congressional toss up: A congressional rematch in northeastern Minnesota is testing whether Democrats can hang onto a seat they have held almost exclusively for decades.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is on his heels again in a race against Republican challenger Stewart Mills, whom Nolan narrowly defeated in 2014. Fueled by more than $12 million in attack ads from outside groups, it’s become the second-most expensive congressional race in the country.

On paper it should be an easier election for Nolan with a presidential turnout surge favoring Democrats. But in a district that’s grown more conservative through redistricting — as evidenced by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s strong showing in March caucuses — nothing is guaranteed anymore.

“We are treating this as a pure tossup,” Mills said. “We’re not starting at zero. We’re picking up exactly where we left off.”

The 8th Congressional District spans from urban Duluth’s liberal voters and old-school Democratic iron mining towns to lakes country and conservative Twin Cities suburbs, with tiny townships scattered in between.

Light rail cars: The Metropolitan Council has awarded a $118 million-plus contract for 27 new light rail transit vehicles to Germany-based Siemens, the sole bidder seeking to supply trains for the Southwest LRT project.

Siemens is the same company that manufactured the Green Line vehicles five years ago, but the new ones will be “improved versions,” according to the Met Council. They will offer more room for wheelchairs, automatic passenger counters and ice cutters that will remove sleet from overhead wires.

The vehicles will still be compatible with the existing Twin Cities LRT tracks, including the Blue Line between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America in Bloomington and the Green Line between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The planned 14.5-mile Southwest line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie is scheduled to start construction next year and open in 2021. Vehicles will begin arriving in Minnesota in 2019 from Siemens’ California plant to undergo 500 miles of testing on Blue Line tracks before opening day.

Siemens won’t start building the cars until early 2018, after the Met Council is scheduled to lock in more than $900 million in federal funding for the project. The Federal Transit Administration is expected to cover half the cost of the $1.86 billion line, but the vehicle contract is included in that price tag.

Apprenticeship boost: The U.S. Department of Labor has awarded the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry a $1.5 million grant to fund its Apprenticeship Expansion initiative.

The agency’s initiative supports the expansion of registered apprenticeship in construction to minorities and women through greater construction-employer engagement, statewide promotion and construction-career readiness.

“A well-prepared and highly skilled workforce is essential to Minnesota’s economic future,” said Ken Peterson, the state’s Labor and Industry commissioner.

The initiative will engage construction employers, building trades unions, educators and workforce intermediaries to expand apprenticeship recruiting and retention strategies, the department said. It also will support apprenticeship readiness programs with registered apprenticeship partners.

Currently, there are more than 200 apprenticeship programs registered in Minnesota — 85 percent of them in construction trades. There are more than 11,000 Minnesotan apprentices, of whom 7 percent are women and 20 percent are minorities, according to Labor and Industry figures.

What’s ahead: The Subcommittee on Employee Relations will meet on Monday, Nov. 14 at 10 a.m. in Room 2308 of the Minnesota Senate Building, 95 University Ave. W., in St. Paul. On the agenda is election of the subcommittee chair and approval of memoranda of understanding providing paid parental leave. The subcommittee assists the Legislature by providing interim approval of negotiated agreements, arbitration awards and compensation plans for executive branch employees.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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