Congressman-elect Chip Cravaack withheld support Wednesday for some of his political rival's pet Duluth projects, including the Northern Lights Express passenger railroad, the cross-town bicycle trail that would connect the Munger Trail in West Duluth to the Lakewalk and the new terminal at the Duluth International Airport.
Cravaack, 51, defeated Rep. Jim Oberstar by about 4,400 votes Tuesday in the race to represent Minnesota's 8th District in Congress. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Cravaack said his priority will be to reduce the federal deficit. As a congressman, he said, that means he will have to separate "wants" from "needs."
Even though airport terminal construction is under way, Cravaack said he wasn't sure it was needed.
"I don't know where the funding is for that right now, but even the people that work at the airport are kind of questioning it," said Cravaack, a retired pilot. "Do we need it? Again, is it a need, or a want?"
In an interview earlier Wednesday, Airport Authority Executive Director Brian Ryks expressed confidence the terminal would be completed.
"The project began last year," Ryks said. "It's in the second year of the project. The (Federal Aviation Administration) is interested in seeing it through."
But the Northern Lights Express passenger train between Duluth and St. Paul is still in the planning stages. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is an enthusiastic supporter. But Cravaack expressed doubts about the idea.
"I love railroads. Railroads are great," he said. "But unless they can pay for themselves, I just don't see it being practical. ... The majority of these types of trains have to be subsidized, and we just cannot afford to subsidize it right now."
Steve Raukar, NLX board chairman, said earlier Wednesday the board was disappointed about Oberstar's defeat but hoped for Cravaack's support.
"It's a corridor that will go right through the heart of his district," Raukar said. "It will bring economic development to the district. I'm assuming he will likely support it."
But Cravaack said small businesses drive the 8th District economy, and his priority for growing jobs would be giving them a more favorable environment.
"Talk to any small-business owner in the 8th and they will tell you that they are afraid to death to move, to do anything, to hire the new employee, to purchase new equipment because they don't know what's going to happen next," he said.
The Munger Trail extension fits Cravaack's definition of a want rather than a need.
"Until we get rid of $13.6 trillion in debt ... I'd rather put those funds in making sure the southbound I-35 lane is smoothed out right about at Sandstone," he said. "These are great trails ... but at the same time we have to be able to prioritize where we spend those federal dollars without adding to the debt."
Cravaack, of Lindstrom, Minn., is a former Navy captain and Northwest Airlines pilot. His wife, Traci, works for Novo Nordisk, a Danish firm seeking to cure diabetes.
He retired as a pilot three years ago when he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and has been a stay-at-home dad to his sons, ages 6 and 9. He doesn't plan to move his family to Washington.
"I'm going to miss taking my boys to school, I'll tell you that much," he said.
Cravaack said the closest he had to political experience before taking on Oberstar was serving as president of a parent-teacher organization. His sons attend Chisago Lakes schools in Chisago City.
On other matters:
# Health-care reform: Cravaack said he would seek repeal of the health-care reform bill and said it wouldn't be enough just to improve the legislation. "I think it's a very bad bill for America."
# Working with Democrats in Duluth: "I'm going to say, 'This is what I believe in, this is what I think.' Maybe some people won't agree with me, but it's not that it's a 'D' or an 'R.' These are the principles that I'd like to bring to the table -- love to hear yours. Let's start the discussion."
# Committee preferences: Cravaack said because of his aviation background he's interested in the same Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that Oberstar is chairman of now. Other interests are Education and Labor, Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs.