At 68, and with a backbone surgically fused together, Dan Erhart is more likely to chase dreams than trains. With the Northstar Line, he chased both -- for nearly 13 years.
A man who has rarely ridden on trains and admits that he doesn't understand the romanticism people associate with rail travel, Erhart is the engine who has pulled, pushed and blown his horn to make Northstar the reality that was to begin service in Big Lake at 5 o'clock this morning. The new commuter rail line -- with stops in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley -- makes the 41-mile trip from Big Lake in Sherburne County to Minneapolis' new Target Field station in 51 minutes.
Erhart's next stop? Never one to slow down and savor the moment, the longtime Anoka County commissioner has about as much patience as a 45-second Northstar station stop. The chairman of Northstar's executive committee not only envisions a Phase II that will run commuter trains to St. Cloud and beyond, but has worked the phones feverishly in recent months, trying to get a proposed $615 million passenger line from Minneapolis to Duluth on track.
He lobbies endlessly for a second train station in Coon Rapids, where he lives, and envisions the day that a Foley Boulevard station in Coon Rapids becomes the hub that helps steer 500 trains through Minneapolis daily.
"You can look back, sit in your rocking chair and say, 'We made a difference,' but there are more productive things that I can be doing," Erhart said recently. "So I try to be aggressive."
The gentle persuader
Erhart's tunnel-vision focus on Northstar captured the attention of Gov. Tim Pawlenty six years ago. The governor had little choice. When Erhart approached Pawlenty in his office at the Capitol in 2003, the commissioner couldn't have been more direct when he said, "Governor, you have to support this."
Erhart retold the story two years ago while standing on a podium alongside Pawlenty -- the day Thomas Barrett, then U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, signed an agreement committing $156.8 million in federal funding toward the $320 million Northstar line. Erhart recalled worrying that, in that 2003 encounter with the governor, he may have been "a little too strong."
But as he walked out of Pawlenty's office, the governor grabbed him by the shoulder, Erhart recalled.
"Stay persistent," Pawlenty told him.
Erhart, who says lightning bolt-like ideas often jostle him out of bed hours before sunrise, had a project to pursue. His persistence was enough to fuel the fire of key players from both political parties -- then-Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, both Democrats -- in launching Northstar.
But his style has also earned him the nickname "the Godfather of Anoka County," say political conservatives on various Internet sites. Phil Krinkie, a former state representative from Lino Lakes who now heads the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, calls Erhart "a bully, but not a villain."
"His run-'em-over, bulldozer style doesn't sit well with some people," said Krinkie. "But they vote for him."
Too firm, too often
Erhart's aggressive style got him removed as chairman of the Anoka County Board in 2005, after holding that position for 18 years. When Margaret Langfeld, a political ally who also supported Northstar and a Vikings stadium in Blaine, replaced Erhart, she said, "Dan has a pretty firm style, and some people felt it was too much, and that the county would be better served by a softer approach to some things."
Erhart's response: "I've never been much of a subscriber of a soft approach. It guarantees that nothing happens."
Old enough to remember steam locomotives and to have ridden on streetcars, Erhart was determined to have a commuter rail line run through Anoka and Sherburne counties to Minneapolis.
He grew up in Pine City, in the country, where people didn't depend on rail travel. He says he once rode the train from St. Paul to Pine City and never again glided on one until he was a senior at the University of Minnesota and took the train to Chicago.
Erhart rarely minces words or hides emotions. Of his politically conservative foes who, he says, criticize ideas without offering alternatives, he says bluntly and often, "They are out to destroy Anoka County." At Anoka County Board meetings, Erhart has greeted rebuttals from foil and colleague Rhonda Sivarajah, a fiscal conservative, with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for root canals.
Getting things done
"Dan Erhart has always put Anoka County first," said Mary Richardson, the St. Paul attorney who has been a member of the Northstar project staff since the original idea of a commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Rice was hatched almost 13 years ago.
"He's dogged," she said, measuring her words carefully. "With Dan, it's not about ego or party politics. It's about getting things done."
In the case of Northstar, Erhart and other metro leaders had to overcome occasional indifference at the State Capitol and budget concerns from Washington, D.C. Had an agreement been signed with the federal government in 2003, as had been hoped, the entire project would have cost $165 million and the Northstar Line would have extended from Minneapolis to Rice.
The cost doubled. The route was cut in half.
"In the early days, getting people interested in Northstar was like pulling teeth," said former Anoka County Commissioner Paul McCarron, former Northstar executive committee chairman.
"The driving force," he said, "was Erhart."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419