A few months ago, I was privileged to be a guest lecturer for a colleague’s environmental sociology course at the UW-La Crosse. For those unfamiliar, La Crosse, Wisconsin is one of the larger small cities in the region. It’s a city with a metro area of about 130,000 people located in a magnificent spot on the Mississippi River, just on the north end of the Driftless Region, which is one of my favorite parts of the country. The city has a long and interesting history, an historic downtown, and an industrial legacy that makes it an interesting place to visit.
Best of all for this story, it’s one of the few cities anywhere on earth that is conveniently linked to Saint Paul by passenger rail. Each day, once in each direction, one of the few remaining Amtrak long-distance trains stops there on its way to Milwaukee and Chicago. The trip is a beautiful journey through the Mississippi River valley and, at the behest of my La Crosse friend, my wife and I went there and back on Amtrak, a distance of about 140 miles.
(We even brought our bikes on the train, just to see if it was possible. And, it was! The new bike-train policy is practical, inelegant, and convenient, but, at $40 per trip, much too expensive.)
My first reaction is, as always, that I love rail travel. God, how I wish we had better train service in our dumb country.
The other takeaway is that I think both Saint Paul and La Crosse would benefit greatly from a closer, more seamless rail connection between the two downtowns. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, like many of the smaller schools in cities outside the Metro, often struggles to attract faculty. Over the years, I’ve known many friends in the social sciences who taught in Duluth, Mankato, La Crosse, Northfield, or St. Peter. One huge drawback about these gigs is being condemned to drive back and forth from these far-flung places to the Twin Cities, where their family, cultural, and social connections are firmly fixed. This is equally true for younger people or older people who want to stay in touch with folks but don’t want to drive at night, long distance, or in the winter.
But reliable rail service isn’t just about nomadic academics; thanks to the neoliberal economics that have gutted economies throughout the Midwest, the growing parts of the regional economy are increasingly concentrated in the sectors located in the Metro Area. A lot of these jobs and careers require flexibility and travel, and I believe that the ability to take a train (and work while you are traveling) would do a lot to link smaller cities to the growth occurring in the Metro. Imagine the freedom of being able to work in a smaller city, but travel once or twice a month into Minneapolis or Saint Paul for meetings or to easily catch an airplane. All of a sudden, making a life for yourself in Mankato or Duluth seems much less isolating.
In particular, inter-city rail would benefit the historic downtown areas of smaller cities. All these places have historic-but-struggling downtowns, places with a lot of potential but that have struggled with changes to retail that have left the old main streets much less vibrant than they should be. Imagine if new housing, restaurants, and hotels began to pop up around train stations in downtown St. Cloud or Winona? Imagine how many more people might move to downtown Rochester if you could hop a train back and forth to Saint Paul in under and hour, multiple times a day?
Today’s urban-rural divide is often a code for lots of other issues around age, race, and economic differences. It’s certainly used as a cynical cudgel to rile up folks in rural areas, fueling the revanchist politics that seems to be swamping our democracy. (See also: the asinine Scott Walker move in the right-wing political playbook.)
And yet I think there’s a great deal of common ground to be found in between our region’s historic cities. If we could link the cores of our region’s cities large and small, and allow people the freedom to live outside the Metro Area while staying connected to it, I believe it would catalyze a bunch of beneficial economic and social changes that would help decrease the divide between the Metro and the rest of the region.
Right now, there are a lot of regional rail proposals sitting waiting for political vision and action. The lowest hanging fruit, to be sure, is the second Amtrak train that would run from Saint Paul to Chicago, stopping in Red Wing, Winona, and La Crosse on its way eastward. The good news is that the long-standing anti-investment politics in Wisconsin have changed; Scott Walker is out, thank god, and the one thing that Wisconsin’s new Governor and Republican-controlled (and gerrymandered) State Assembly have agreed on is funding for this added train line. It’s up to Minnesota politicians now to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity to improve our connections and rail mobility while we can. The state legislature should fund Governor Walz’s proposal to invest in this train. (Ideally, they’d ask for even more…) Doing so will show how we can link the Twin Cities to the cities that lay just a few hundred miles away, places like Duluth, Rochester, La Crosse, Mankato, and others that have a ton of potential to be better connected. It’s “one Minnesota” after all… and, that’s true for Wisconsin too.