Southern commuter rail plan gets new life

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON and LAURIE BLAKE , S tar Tribune s taff writers
  • Updated: February 16, 2008 - 9:29 PM

Growing congestion south of the river is leading to pressure to revive rail planning and overturn a legislative ban on the route.

When the ancient Bloomington Ferry Bridge disappeared and a new six-lane span replaced it, Lisa Pap recalls thinking, "This is great! I can move further out, get more house for my money and not have to deal with a ton of traffic."

A decade later, she knows better: "How naïve could I be?"

Tens of thousands of others had the same idea. Shakopee alone began seeing hundreds more homes each year than anyone had projected. And Pap found herself in a commuting quagmire.

From as little as 15 minutes to reach the Crosstown from her home in Savage, she now counts on up to 45 minutes during peak travel times. Startlingly, to experts and commuters alike, the 1997 bridge is already at capacity at rush hour.

And that is leading to growing pressure to bring commuter rail into the state's fastest-growing county.

Backed by the Metropolitan Council and other metro counties, elected leaders in Scott County will make a major push during this legislative session to revive plans for the Dan Patch commuter rail line, which would run from Northfield to downtown Minneapolis.

At one time, they say, the Dan Patch line was rated the second most attractive behind only the Northstar line, which is moving forward. But political pushback from Bloomington and Edina -- where parents feared trains roaring through their neighborhoods near parks and back yards -- led legislators to take the unusual step of expressly forbidding any planning for such a line.

Commuter rail caters to morning and evening work trips. Passenger trains run on existing freight tracks under agreements with the railroads that own them.

"The Dan Patch line has to be at least on our list of options," said state Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee. "Whether it's going to make financial sense in the end is another story. But to put it entirely out of play? To forbid anyone from expending any energy even considering it? That's just wrong. It was an incredibly self-serving effort on the part of a couple of legislative colleagues, and I am having a bill drafted as we speak that excises that language."

But that in turn is sure to excite a new wave of anxiety north of the river.

When the planning ban passed in 2002, recalls Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, who helped push for it, "I said to the people along the line, 'They will be back someday.' I am surprised they are coming back so early.''

One of 3 commuter rail routes

Precisely a decade ago -- in the winter of 1998 -- the Minnesota Department of Transportation chose the 40-mile Dan Patch corridor as one of the metro's three most promising routes. The others were the Northstar, now set to open between Minneapolis and Big Lake next year, and the Red Rock line from Hastings to St. Paul and Minneapolis, a route that's actively under study.

Dakota County spent $400,000 to study commuter service on the Dan Patch, a study finished in December 2001. It predicted 7,500 rides a day by 2020 -- six trains going north and one going south in the morning and vice versa in the evening. The cost in 2010 dollars was estimated at $441 million.

The study concluded that it was possible to upgrade Canadian Pacific tracks, but not practical because of the cost and resistance from adjoining property owners, said Scott Peters, senior planner for the county.

The following spring, then-Sen. Roy Terwilliger, R-Edina, and Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington, introduced legislation that became a state prohibition against further study of the Dan Patch line.

Now the Met Council is urging the Legislature to lift the study ban so the Dan Patch can be included with every other potential rail corridor in the metro area as the Met Council updates its transportation policy guide for the next 30 years.

"As long as we have to look at all these different routes, everything should be on the table,'' said Met Council Member Peggy Leppik. "It seems a little odd not to include a line that is sitting there and has been discussed in the past.''

More trains, going faster

Edina, Bloomington and Dakota County have yet to digest the proposal and take a position. Dakota County is focused on delivering bus rapid transit on Cedar Avenue, Peters said.

Edina originally opposed Dan Patch because the rail line would snake close behind homes and beside parks, and residents disliked the idea of more trains running at higher speeds.

The City Council has yet to discuss the proposal to put the rail line back on the planning maps, but it's likely the city would oppose it, said City Manager Gordon Hughes. Bloomington planner Larry Lee also said he doubts the City Council has changed its opposition.

But Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County Board member and chairman of the Metro Transitways Development Board, a coalition of metro counties promoting rail and busways, said opponents don't recognize the steps always taken to ensure safety around rail lines.

"People get 'whupped up,' " he said. "They fear change."

dapeterson@startribune.com • 952-882-9023 lblake@startribune.com • 612-673-1711

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