Notes From the Minnesota Statewide Passenger Rail Plan Meeting

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.

McColl Pond Environmental Learning Center

McColl Pond Environmental Learning Center. Normally these meetings take place at night in some school cafeteria, but this one took place during daylight hours in a beautiful building within a park.

 

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.

Img 1298

The Meeting. Councilor Nakasian is in black, standing to the left of the screen. Quite a few people were sitting along the walls to either side of me out of view.

 

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?

South Central Rail Corridor

South Central Minnesota Passenger Rail Corridor. (I was unexpectedly unable to find this graphic online, so I had to scan the handout which I had absent-mindedly folded to stuff in my pocket.)

 

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.

What’s Next

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.”

 

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15 Responses to Notes From the Minnesota Statewide Passenger Rail Plan Meeting

  1. Nick Benson January 13, 2020 at 9:42 am #

    Union Pacific’s Spine Line between Northfield and St. Paul has seen more traffic from the oil boom, but it’s all been in the form of frac sand getting mined in Wisconsin and heading south; the infrastructure there is already sufficient for any freight traffic – improving it to passenger standards isn’t going to increase the volume of freight.

    Any suggestion that oil will be flowing over the Spine Line is also pretty far-fetched; UP doesn’t have any infrastructure whatsoever in the oil fields, and BNSF and CP are more than happy to haul those lucrative loads from North Dakota to the Gulf Coast entirely on their infrastructure, which is well to the east of this line along the Mississippi River.

    • Andrew Evans January 13, 2020 at 10:09 am #

      I was thinking along the same lines that we’re more than likely past peak oil by rail, and maybe more than likely past any upgrading any lines that don’t carry freight to do so. Maybe I’m wrong, dunno.

  2. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker January 13, 2020 at 9:52 am #

    The eastern alignment makes a lot of sense to me. A route running through Rosemount, Farmington, Northfield, Fairbault, and Owatonna would serve a number of medium-sized towns with close links to the Twin Cities. All on rail ROW that already exists and is quite straight. It doesn’t need to be HSR to be a very fast, efficient, popular route.

    The challenges are:

    (1) Where should it go after Owatonna? I’d like to see it bend towards Rochester…
    (2) How can it connect from the SPUD to Minneapolis? The best option is probably the CP tracks through the Ayd Mill gulch, but is that the easiest to secure? Probably not.

    I also hope that boosters of this are aware that there’s a huge need to improve frequency. These routes should be able to depart every hour. The Northstar is mostly useless because it runs so infrequently; it’s true commuter rail because it serves nothing else. But if you want to serve all types of people, including students, for instance, you need to run at least one train in each direction every hour.

    • Monte Castleman January 14, 2020 at 7:46 am #

      The read I got is that the organizers don’t even want to talk about rail to Rochester on new alignment- it got a 30 second mention in their meeting and was on their slide as a dashed light yellow line that was almost invisible on the white background. Probably because such a line isn’t politically feasible and it’s a distraction to things that may be like regional rail on existing alignments and would start drawing comparisons to the California High Speed rail project. Whatever the merits of that project the costs have doubled with no end in sight and it’s always the first one conservatives cite as an example of as government waste or whatever.

      I’d like to see it go on the BNSF tracks as that would allow for a station at the state fairgrounds. It might come down to which railroad can be persuaded to cooperate. There’s no need to reiterate the drama about BNSF vs the Blue Line Extension, but an audience member, the same one that mentioned CP Rails desire to run oil trains down Dan Patch, claimed their CP Rail is also extremely angry with local authorities for allowing a lot of high density housing to be built next to their lines. Presumably they’re worried about increase liability in case of an accident and/or are getting complaints about operations from people that suddenly realized they move in next to active railroad tracks.

      • Alex Schieferdecker
        Alex Schieferdecker January 14, 2020 at 9:03 am #

        Freight railroads gonna freight railroad.

        Advantage of the CP tracks is that a train doesn’t need to reverse out of the SPUD. Solves a bunch of logistical issues.

        Since there’s not year-round demand for the fairgrounds, it feels like not a major need. You could run buses from a future UofM station for the week and a half of the fair. If the BNSF line was used, then you could build a cheap platform at the fair and open it for special events.

        • Ian R Buck January 18, 2020 at 7:58 am #

          Since the Empire Builder already runs on the CP tracks along Ayd Mill Rd, that seems like it would be the easiest to secure permission to use.

    • Monte Castleman January 14, 2020 at 7:52 am #

      I don’t recall any mention of frequency being discussed. It was mentioned that what kills transit is it taking three times longer than your car to get somewhere.

  3. Eric Ecklund January 13, 2020 at 10:51 am #

    I was also at the meeting, but I guess I was representing my group (Support the Dan Patch Rail Line) more than streets.mn.

    No matter what you call this rail line and no matter what you propose, NIMBYism from people living along the tracks will be loud and try to stop it, so I find it pointless to call it a generic name like “South Central Minnesota Passenger Rail Corridor”.

    In regards to Lakeville, their city council doesn’t seem to want anything to do with passenger rail through their community. While they’re hopeful for BRT, the people working on the Orange Line Extension are leaning towards a southern terminus in the Burnsville Center area instead of continuing south into Lakeville. The Red Line, which doesn’t really qualify as BRT, has been looked at for a southern extension into Lakeville, but that area is either undeveloped or most development is not transit-supportive. Unless the city starts focusing on TOD along the Cedar Avenue Corridor I don’t see it being economical to extend the Red Line south, and if it is extended not many people will use it. The Dan Patch Line goes through Downtown Lakeville, so hopefully the city council will start to open their minds like Edina and Bloomington have, or eventually they’ll get new leadership that’s open minded to passenger rail.

    My goal is regional rail between Minneapolis and Northfield and eventually reaching Albert Lea. MnDOT seems focused on looking at intercity rail that would only run a few times per day at most to/from Kansas City and have one suburban station; I’m adamantly against that on the Dan Patch Line. That corridor wasn’t built for intercity trains, but it’s a perfect corridor for a suburban rail service that can also serve Southern Minnesota. I go into more detail about my vision here- https://streets.mn/2019/10/09/a-vision-for-the-dan-patch-corridor/

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 13, 2020 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks for this report, Monte!

  5. Puzzled in Bloomington January 13, 2020 at 11:51 am #

    I’ve never really understood the basis for the objection to the line in the Bloomington / Edina area. The rail line far predates any housing in that area. Were residents who chose to build there given a promise by someone that the rail line would never be used? It is a promise that should have never been given; rail lines are too valuable of an asset for any metropolitan area to be allowed to sit dormant.

    Whichever developer made these assurances to homebuyers really got off with a fortune, because residential land next to a rail line is generally worth significantly less that without a rail line. Promising no future use would allow them to sell the land at a far higher value than it is actually worth.

    • Eric Ecklund January 13, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

      One Bloomington resident told me when he moved in 20 years ago he was promised the rail line would be abandoned. Obviously that never happened. Funnily enough, there are two very short trail spurs from neighborhoods and they dead-end at the train tracks. I guess even the city thought the rail line was going to be abandoned and they could swoop in and build a rail-trail.

      As for the objection, it’s simple; people don’t like change. Residents along the tracks have been used to a single, slow-moving freight train for years and even the tiniest increase in rail traffic will cause an uproar. But just because a rail line has had only one freight train for years or even decades doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way. As you said, rail corridors like the Dan Patch Line in metropolitan areas like ours are too valuable and important to rip up. There’s plenty of other places to put recreational trails if people want them that badly, and if people despise trains enough to support a potentially unconstitutional gag order then maybe they should move somewhere else.

      • Puzzled in Bloomington January 13, 2020 at 1:00 pm #

        When we bought our house in Bloomington 22 years ago, we also looked at some homes along the rail line in Bloomington and Edina. They were beautiful homes in highly desirable neighborhoods, and were listed in our price range. We could have had a great home at a low price, but we knew the rail line through the back yard could come to life at any time. Anyone who knows the history of railroads in the U.S. knows they usually get their way. We passed up the opportunity for a great deal and bought a smaller, older home in a neighborhood further east, without train tracks, for the same price.

        I’m not sure why the region should be held hostage by people who knowingly bought land next to a train track, and benefited from it financially. I don’t have any sympathy for them. They know exactly what they bought when they moved in.

  6. Scott January 14, 2020 at 5:06 pm #

    Thanks for writing this summary of the meeting.

    As someone who’s very keen to see passenger rail move ahead in MN, I’m pretty skeptical that this line would be successful. It seems similar to the Northstar concept which runs to low-density places where driving is easy. Rather see the Northstar extended to St. Cloud, the Northern Lights Express to Duluth, and the 2nd line to Chicago be prioritized. For that matter, public transit in Minneapolis proper needs significant investment, especially downtown, if we are going to expect passengers from suburbs and rural communities to travel into the City by rail. As much as people complain, it’s not that hard to drive and park in downtown Minneapolis now. MN’s car culture is so strong that I fear only something like extremely high gas prices will lead to people using passenger rail in significant numbers.

    • Eric Ecklund January 15, 2020 at 9:25 am #

      1) Transit should be improved across the region. Let’s not make this an urban vs suburban issue.

      2) Better to prepare for high gas prices now so when (key word when, not if) gas prices spike these proposals will hopefully be under construction or already completed.

      • Monte Castleman January 15, 2020 at 10:46 am #

        I don’t think gas prices are going to spike, at least not unless it’s by the action of the U.S. government. We now have a lot of latent capacity in the Bakken that could be turned on if prices rise even slightly, and OPEC knows it.

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