Northstar expansion, line to Duluth await his replacement.
With Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein taking a new career path, will two proposed rail projects be heading in new directions?
Stenglein, 56, who will leave the County Board to serve as president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, has been Hennepin County's representative on the Northstar Corridor Development Authority and an advocate of the line's proposed extension to St. Cloud. He also is vice chairman of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) Rail Alliance Board, the group exploring a proposed passenger line from Minneapolis to Duluth.
Both lines already have lost key political advocates. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a two-time chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation, was defeated in his bid for reelection by Chip Cravaack 16 months ago.
Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart was chairman of the county's rail authority until Rhonda Sivarajah was elected chairwoman of the County Board 14 months ago.
Matt Look, the county's new rail chairman, has said Northstar needs 4,500 rides per day to extend the line to St. Cloud. It currently has fewer than 2,000 daily rides. Look now represents Anoka County on the NLX Rail Alliance Board. Last year, he voted to take state bonding support for NLX out of the county's packet of legislative priorities, which the County Board did.
"I'll trust the judgment of the Hennepin County Board to appoint somebody who is like-minded to replace Mark Stenglein," said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA).
"I think Hennepin County will handle this carefully."
So does Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, another NCDA board member.
"We're hoping that whoever replaces Mark has the same commitment," Schmiesing said.
He noted that Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been a staunch supporter of expanding and connecting Minnesota's rail network.
"Hennepin County has been nothing but positive," Schmiesing said. "I'd be surprised if they changed that. It would make no sense to work so hard for something and then reverse your thinking."
A lot at stake
Erhart, who remains on the county rail authority, still attends NCDA meetings on his own but has no vote. He says Stenglein's influence will be sorely missed in crafting the future of the proposed 150-mile high-speed passenger line from Minneapolis to Duluth.
"Mark Stenglein was so supportive of NLX," Erhart said. "We know Peter McLaughlin is very supportive of Northstar. But Hennepin County's got to handle NLX carefully. There's a lot at stake."
Stenglein still could play a key role in both lines. He said there is no timetable for his exit from the County Board.
"I haven't decided yet," he said last week when asked when he will leave. "Maybe I can do both jobs. Regardless of when I leave the County Board, I'm still in support of Phase II," which would extend Northstar to St. Cloud, at a cost estimated at $150 million.
"What outlying county wouldn't support having added riders on a commuter line running through it?" Stenglein asked. "Anoka [County] should take advantage of the opportunity it has and start developing around the line."
John Ongaro, director of intergovernmental affairs for St. Louis County, said the preliminary engineering phase of planning NLX has begun, thanks to a $5 million federal grant received last summer and $4 million from the state.
"Eighteen months from now, we'll need to come in with our final phase of this planning project," Ongaro said. "We want to be shovel-ready when it's time to compete with 32 other states for federal funding.
"We'll sorely miss Stenglein. But politicians come and go. We think there's a lot of viability and merit to this project, regardless as to who's on board."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419