On Jan 7, a meeting on the Minnesota Statewide Passenger Rail plan was held at the McColl Pond Environmental Learning Center in Savage, and streets.mn was invited to join other local media outlets and elected officials to hear about updates to the plan. No one else from streets.mn said they were going, so, because I live in the South Metro and was able to get time off, I took it upon myself to go. Personally, I can’t envision a scenario where I’d use Minnesota passenger rail except to take a train ride to check it out for fun. On the other hand, I’m in favor of rail investment and have an interest in any kind of infrastructure.
Things got off to a bit of an awkward start, as my RSVP to the city wasn’t acknowledged prior to the meeting. To be fair, though, I only emailed a day before, so the person in charge of that might have been out. I figured – correctly – that I could just show up and say who I represented. When we sat down and everyone was introducing themselves, people mentioned their cities, so I said, “I’m from Bloomington,” not realizing I was presenting myself as a representative of the city rather than streets.mn. Oops. Oh well; I had a laugh about it with the actual mayor of Bloomington afterwards. After the mayor of Savage gave a brief greeting, the presentation was led by Northfield Councilor Suzie Nakasian, also a DFL state Senate candidate and a grass roots rail proponent.
A slide of the State Rail Plan was shown. Several projects – the extended Northstar service to St. Cloud, the second Empire Builder to Chicago, and the Northern Lights Express between Minneapolis and Duluth – were briefly mentioned, along with a comment about the line to Rochester being on the back burner for a variety of reasons. However, 95% of the meeting was about rail in general, or rail specifically from downtown Minneapolis and/or St. Paul, to the south to Northfield and beyond, the “Line Formerly Known as Dan Patch”. First, the elephant in the room (or the horse in the stable?): it was emphasized that the original concept of the Dan Patch Line was ancient history. The moratorium that had been placed on further study of the Line, besides possibly being unconstitutional, was from 20 years ago when we didn’t have two decades of successful light rail as a reference point, and people were afraid it would “be noisy or eat the children”. Finally, the politician responsible for pushing the moratorium through the legislature is now deceased. Nevertheless, trying to repeal it has failed three times, and it’s no longer a battle that proponents want to attempt again. Instead, it has morphed into the South Central Minnesota Passenger Rail Corridor (nothing in the moratorium prevented studying regional rail as opposed to commuter rail). They’re trying to distance themselves from the Dan Patch name because it may or may not actually follow or be limited to the original Dan Patch line, but also possibly for political reasons.
East or West?
There are two alignments under discussion for the South Central Passenger Rail Corridor. The west route seems to be the easiest option at this point, as the rails are in much better condition and there is much more community support. Farmington was mentioned as a supporter. On the west route, the rail is in much worse shape, with one section not even in current use. Lakeville is lukewarm about the project, preferring to focus on Bus Rapid Transit extensions. Bloomington’s opinion, if they had previously expressed one to the organizers, wasn’t noted. I talked to incoming mayor Tim Busse afterwards, but I won’t repeat what was specifically discussed; with Bloomington’s weak mayor system, his opinion doesn’t necessarily stand alone for Bloomington.
[As an aside, my read on Bloomington’s position is that, with several major distractions right now – a new community center, river bottoms trails, and the mall waterpark – they’re not thinking too much about the rail. Also, I think they’re staying out of it until they see which way the winds are blowing. Although the Bloomington city government is probably best described as moderately liberal (Bloomington city council and mayor are officially non-partisan), they’re very, very sensitive to conservative citizens and NIMBYism, or the slightest hint that there might need to be property takings. In the case of the new community center, the appetite for spending money evaporated after quite a few residents, furious over their skyrocketing property tax assessments and their disapproval of the proposed site, directed their wrath at the city council.]
Notwithstanding the difficulties of the west route, Scott County overwhelmingly supports it. About 50% of residents cross the Minnesota river for work, and the county’s population is poised for continued growth. Meanwhile, by their counting, there are only 10 highway lanes spanning the river crossings to the core metro centers compared to 52 lanes on Dakota County river bridges. Scott County wants something, anything, that will mitigate congestion on the bridges and make their residents’ commutes easier. However, an attendee pointed out that if the west route is improved to the point passenger rail is possible, that also means heavy, sustained freight use will be possible, and the line goes through heavily residential areas. The attendee stated that Bakken oil production is increasing, and the pipelines are over-capacity, so both the Soo Line and BNSF would run oil trains down the line towards refineries in the south. Besides the noise associated with a sharp uptick in freight traffic, accidents do happen. An accident involving a Bakken crude oil train destroyed much of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, resulting in 47 deaths.
To Northfield and Beyond
Either the east or west route would serve Northfield, whose government strongly supports the line. 60% of their workers commute to the Twin Cities and, as Councilor Nakasian put it, “they all come to a stop at I-494 and get a chance to drink their coffee”. Another initiative of hers is improving outcomes for disadvantaged students who, once they graduate from high school, have no physical way of getting to college (the idea of Twin Cities residents reverse commuting to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges never came up; presumably, if you can afford to go there, you can afford to stay at the dorms). Northfield wants the line to go to both downtowns, as well as have a stop at the U of M, thus allowing Northfield residents to commute to school and work by rail.
It was emphasized that Northfield has a long history of railroading. We were invited to visit the beautifully restored depot, sitting there waiting for the trains to return. There was mention of the historical Twin Star Rocket service that went from Houston, TX to Minneapolis. The South Central Passenger Rail Corridor could be tied to a larger project to provide direct passenger rail as far as Kansas City, thus providing a logical link in the national rail network. Extension of the Amtrak Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Kansas City is being discussed, and it was mentioned that name could be used for the continuation from Kansas City to Minneapolis. Councilor Nakasian mentioned six million (if I heard it right) Canadians travel to the southwest every year, and it was suggested that rail could eventually offer service from Winnipeg all the way to the Southwest. Personally, I’m skeptical that many people would want to ride a train that long, as opposed to hopping on an airplane and getting there in an hour or two or driving and having their car at the destination. It seems likely that, by the time rail would be available from Winnipeg to Kansas City, our cars will be self-driving, or close to it.
There was a brief mention of another proposed passenger rail line for Southern Minnesota, which would run east-west between Mankato and Rochester, crossing the South Central Line at Owatonna. Cities along that line have been lukewarm to the idea. To the extent they’ll even talk to the rail proponents, their primary objection is that they’ve spent many decades trying to get US 14 built as an freeway/expressway with bypasses, and they want to spend their pecuniary and political capital on finishing it. Advocates for rail are trying to point out it’s not a zero-sum game, as there are different pots of money.
The presenters asked any Republican elected representatives in the room to raise their hand, and no one did. However, they exist outside the room, so a discussion was started as to how to pitch the project to them. It was suggested to present it as a fiscally responsible choice, since any options would use existing right of way (reading between the lines, this will not be akin to projects whose costs have spiraled out of control like the Seattle monorail or, increasingly, the California high speed rail). It was also suggested to continue emphasizing that spending on rail will in no way divert funds for highway maintenance and expansion. Someone also pointed out that ultimately, “everything but your bicycle is subsidized, and you subsidize that.” The call to action was to keep contacting our legislators, particularly members of the Senate Capital Investment Committee. There are bills on the table (HF 1493 and SF 1899) to spend $500,000 on a study to determine the basic route and feasibility of the South Central Minnesota Passenger Rail Corridor. Elected representatives were asked to raise their hands if they might be interested in forming a coalition. The final slide was a quote from Saint Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”