By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
HINCKLEY, Minn. — For a high speed passenger rail line, the proposed Northern Lights Express has taken a long time to get up and running, with much farther to go before reaching its destination of $1 billion in funding.
As the gears of government grind along on ridership and other studies, local opposition to bringing back the abandoned Amtrak 155 mile route from the Twin Cities to Duluth continues to gain steam.
“I think there’s a lot of unknowns and I think people, when it’s unfamiliar to them, their first reaction is to be unsupportive,” said Mary McFarland Brooks, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The Pine County Board of Commissioners became the most recent mutineer, following the earlier example of Anoka County in pulling out of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance that’s promoted NLX since 2007.
“Our local constituents have gotten very vocal about this,” said Mitch Pangerl, a Pine County commissioner who voted to withdraw county financial support from NLX. “I don’t feel there’s funding there to do it, and I feel there’s enough opposition that, yeah, we can stop this.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation views NLX as a key component and test of the viability of a nine-state Midwestern high-speed passenger rail network stretching from Nebraska to Ohio. After hearing anti-train questions and concerns at a recent community meeting, the state’s top official for passenger rail realizes it could be a long haul.
“I think the majority of the opposition to the project — and it’s evident in Anoka County, too — is the political climate changed on the government supporting passenger rail mode,” said Dan Krom, director of MDOT’s passenger rail office.
Some 1,200 Pine County residents have signed an anti-NLX petition that was recently sent to sympathetic members of the Minnesota State Legislature.
“It’s just something that we don’t need up here,” said Dave Ostenson, a pastor in the pivotal halfway point of Hinckley who’s circulating the petition. ”When you’ve got a train from Boston to New York that doesn’t make money and a train that goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles that doesn’t make money, we don’t have that kind of population here. So what’s the deal? There’s no purpose in it.”
Pine County includes Hinckley, located on the busy Interstate 35 corridor and home of the popular Grand Casino Hinckley that draws customers from the Twin Cities. Opponents fear the train will undercut businesses that count on tourists and other traffic on the freeway.
“Our highest taxed citizens are property owners right along I-35 and they pay a high tax because they’re along that corridor,” said Pangerl. “And now you’re asking them to subsidize another form of transportation that takes that customer away from their front door…and delivers them directly to the casino.”
Casino clientele will be an important factor in a ridership study underway to determine the economic feasibility of NLX. One plan under review calls for running tracks directly to the casino operated by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
“The casino is a revenue generator, there are employees that travel there every day and we’ve been asked and need to look at whether or not it is feasible to take the train right to the front door or not,” Krom said. “But again, like any other project, it has to make a business case for doing that.”
It’s not only some locals expressing reservations on the controversial train line. Gov. Mark Dayton has reportedly pulled back from supporting MDOT’s $27 million bonding bill request for passenger rail projects, including $7 million designated to attract federal matching funds for NLX.
“They’re very careful in an election year. Bonding becomes very scrutinized and they’re pretty careful,” said McFarland Brooks of MDOT. “I guess I’m not all that surprised, especially given where we’re at with NLX. There’s a lot of information we need as far as ridership before people are going to be convinced.”
The slippage in support has led the NLX alliance to consider inviting several cities along the proposed rail line to become dues-paying participants. With designs on landing a train cleaning facility and station on the line, Sandstone has proposed a contribution of $3,000 in taxpayer funding to the group. Meantime, the Hinckley City Council kept its options open with a letter expressing general support pending more information.
“Would I like to see it built yesterday?” asked Krom. “Yeah, but it’s kind of like the first light rail line. Until you have it and people use it, they don’t realize they want it.”
Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]