Anoka County jumps off the express train to Duluth

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • June 13, 2012 - 5:37 AM

Plans for a proposed $1 billion passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth were suddenly thrown off track Tuesday when Anoka County, once a key proponent, withdrew from the alliance supporting the line.

Doubting the projected levels of federal and state funding for the project and the line's ability to spur $2 billion in development, the county board voted 4-3 to depart from the Northern Lights Express (NLX) after nearly six years of actively supporting the high-speed link.

Stunned officials in Duluth said they will regroup and forge on but called Anoka County's move "a political stunt" that "defies logic." Knowing that decisions to determine the line's funding and stations will likely be made within the year, the county "picked a curious time to forfeit" six months of alliance membership, said Bob Manzoline, executive director of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance. The county's annual $46,300 obligation already is paid through December, he said.

"Anoka County isn't looking at the big picture, or doesn't understand that the feds have earmarked billions of dollars for rail projects, paying up to 80 percent of the costs -- and somebody is going to get the money if Minnesota doesn't," Manzoline said.

While County Board opponents disputed the notion that the federal government would pick up that much of the tab, Manzoline cited rail projects of $9.4 billion in New York City, $7.8 billion in Denver and $5.3 billion in Honolulu.

"Why would Anoka County pull out in the middle of the year?" asked John Ongaro, director of intergovernmental affairs in St. Louis County. "It's politics. Six of the seven commissioners in Anoka County are up for re-election and four of them are trying to make a statement. Let them explain how they're saving money by throwing away a membership they've already paid for."

'Pie in the sky'

County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah was among the most vocal opponents of the proposed 155-mile line, whose trains would reach speeds of 110 miles per hour and take passengers from Minneapolis to Duluth in slightly more than two hours. Sivarajah doubted the line could be profitable and said that anyone who thinks it will receive $800 million in federal funds "has got to be kidding."

An additional state commitment of $139 million? "Pie in the sky," Sivarajah said. She balked at Anoka County's possible commitment of $10 million or more toward the line.

Commissioner Matt Look, the county's new rail authority chairman, also questioned the $10 million commitment before voting against NLX.

"NLX is a gamble I'm not willing to take," he said.

Last year, Look pushed for a $13.2 million commuter rail station in his hometown of Ramsey. Some questioned its need, and it raised some eyebrows in Sherburne, Stearns and Hennepin counties. The station opens this fall.

Andy Westerberg and Robyn West were the other commissioners who voted to withdraw from the alliance.

Look replaced Commissioner Dan Erhart, who championed the 2 1/2-year-old Northstar commuter rail line, as Anoka County's rail authority leader when Sivarajah became board chairwoman last year. Along with James Oberstar, who lost his seat in Congress to Chip Cravaack in 2010, and Mark Stenglein, who left the Hennepin County Board recently to become president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, Erhart is a once-key NLX player now largely on the sidelines.

The NLX project "ties everything together," Erhart said, saying that it would benefit Northstar and a third main line in the metro area. Commissioner Carol LeDoux, who also expressed support for NLX, said Coon Rapids, Anoka County's largest city, passed a resolution supporting the line.

Jim Kordiak, the other commissioner to support the line, said of the 4-3 vote, "it lacks vision by this board."

The NLX alliance still is supported by the cities of Minneapolis, Duluth and Superior and Hennepin, St. Louis, Isanti and Pine counties. Ongaro said that he hopes Anoka County will rejoin after people there "elect a new board in November."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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