The future of a rail line between Northfield and the Twin Cities, a long-held dream for some and taxpayer boondoggle to others, could soon be determined.

If the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s statewide rail plan, expected in February, labels the route a Tier I project, it would be studied sooner and could be implemented in the next two decades. Tier II projects would not be built for at least 20 years, if ever.

Some city leaders and legislators say this is a critical time to rally support for the line and ensure that a study of the route is not kicked down the road indefinitely.

“I didn’t want my community and county to be left behind,” said Rep. David Bly, D-Northfield. He asked cities and counties in the metro and southern Minnesota to send letters of support for the Northfield line to the state.

Many have done so, but Dakota County is not one of them. In a letter to Bly and other advocates sent last week, county commissioners recommended a wait-and-see approach, saying it is premature to gauge interest in the line before studying ridership and technical details.

The county needed to point out “holes and flaws” in Bly’s request, Commissioner Chris Gerlach said.

“He’s representing his district, we’re representing ours,” Gerlach said.

Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg, a former state representative who has long opposed a line between Northfield and Minneapolis, dismissed the idea that the rail would move forward, noting bipartisan opposition in the Legislature.

“If you look at the history of this issue, it’s never gone very far at the Legislature,” she said.

Old studies show there are not enough riders in the area to support the line, Holberg said.

“I can’t imagine that that evaluation would change,” she said, especially with the express bus along Interstate 35 detracting from train ridership.

A MnDOT rail report from 2010 says people would take at least 100,000 to 300,000 rides on the Northfield route in 2030. Fares from the Northfield line were projected to cover just 5 percent of the cost of operating the line, compared to a Minneapolis-to-Chicago route that would earn 144 percent back, according to the report.

To Minneapolis or St. Paul?

The state is looking at two options for routes to Northfield.

One would run to St. Paul and follow the Rock Island railroad tracks through Farmington, Rosemount, Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul. That would be the cheaper option, because Union Depot is already available for a St. Paul stop and the Rock Island tracks would cost less to fix, said Andrew Selden, a technical adviser for the Northfield rail supporters and president of the United Rail Passenger Alliance.

The western route would run to Minneapolis along the Canadian Pacific Railroad and follow what was once the Dan Patch corridor through Lakeville, Burnsville, Bloomington and Edina. That path would be more expensive, Selden said.

“It would need deep work. It’s a fixer-upper for passenger service,” he said.

Many factors need to be studied to determine the best route, including ridership, community support and economic projections, he said.

With a growing population of baby boomers and millennials — particularly students at Northfield’s two colleges — seeking other ways to travel, it makes sense to study a rail line, Rosemount Mayor Bill Droste said.

While the eastern route would have a direct impact on his city, Droste said he would support either alignment.

“When you can give alternate ways for people to connect in a metropolitan area, it’s positive,” Droste said.

In addition to Rosemount, Farmington, Northfield, Ramsey County and Savage have written letters of support for the line, said Kristine Elwood, Dakota County’s transit manager.

A legislative workaround

The idea of resurrecting the century-old Dan Patch corridor from Northfield to Minneapolis was knocked down in 2002, when legislators from Bloomington, Edina and Lakeville — where residents were up in arms over potential impacts to their properties — pushed through a bill banning studies of the commuter line.

“The world has changed a little bit since back then,” Bly said, and he is optimistic that the route could work now.

In Lakeville, people were concerned about the line’s proximity to homes and schools and its impact on Lake Marion, said Holberg, whose district includes Lakeville. She said she would be surprised if that has changed.

However, there seems to be some newfound support from residents in communities that once vehemently opposed the line, said Dave Christianson, project manager for MnDOT’s statewide rail plan.

Local backing is necessary to get a project off the ground, he said.

“There has to be someone at the helm,” Christianson said. The state wants rail projects to emerge through grass-roots efforts, he said, adding, “Northfield is doing a good job of that.”

Nonetheless, the ban on studies of the Dan Patch commuter line remains intact — despite legislators’ attempts to get rid of it in past legislative sessions.

Now, Bly and other advocates are taking a new approach to avoid the moratorium.

They are calling the route an intercity passenger rail instead of commuter rail. An intercity line is meant to quickly carry tourists and other riders long distances.

It would probably not have any stops between Northfield and Minneapolis or St. Paul. Its other stops would include Faribault, Owatonna and Albert Lea, with potential connections to Des Moines and Kansas City, Bly said.

A commuter rail would travel slower, make many more stops and primarily run during work hours, according to MnDOT.

Ultimately, where the train would stop and which city it ends up in — St. Paul or Minneapolis — would be determined through the state’s future studies, advocates said.

For now, they just want those studies to take place in the next decade.