The bipartisan, bicameral legislative effort to extend the Northstar commuter rail line beyond Big Lake, Minn., to its original intended destination, St. Cloud, is a worthy exercise in its own right.
But it’s even more powerful as a template of how lawmakers can come together and address Minnesota’s need to invest in a modern transit system that can compete with peer regions.
Efforts to catch up to cities like Seattle and Denver on transit have generally stalled on a statewide basis in no small part because most Republican legislators have opposed investing in light rail and commuter rail transit, and have even balked at spending on bus service.
This approach is counterproductive to the need to make the state more competitive. So it’s encouraging that DFL Rep. Dan Wolgamott and Republican Sen. Jerry Relph, both of St. Cloud, have shown that coalitions that span political parties and geography can be built on transit.
After testimony from St. Cloud-area residents, students, business and labor groups, local elected officials and others, Wolgamott and Relph have introduced a bill that would fund an $850,000 assessment, analysis and review of a line extension, and up to $6.5 million in bonding predesign work that may include “preliminary and final engineering; environmental analysis and mitigation; land acquisition, including right of way and temporary or permanent easements; and capital improvements to tracks, signals, and rail crossings.” (The total cost of the potential extension, which would require negotiations with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., has yet to be determined).
The bill would require a report by Oct. 1, 2020, that would provide a status overview of the project, a timeline and other key metrics. The state Department of Transportation would be the lead agency on the study and potential construction. Metro Transit would continue to operate the line.
“I believe that the people of Minnesota, no matter what their ZIP code, want excellent transportation options to get to work, to visit their family, and to travel safely through our state,” Wolgamott told an editorial writer.
That ethos reflects the “One Minnesota” approach of Gov. Tim Walz, a DFLer trying to build bridges — or in this case, perhaps a rail line — between urban, suburban and rural Minnesota.
“I support it,” Walz told an editorial writer when asked about this initial legislative effort on extending the Northstar Line.
“I believe in transit; I believe there is a desire to get this done,” said Walz. “What it says about ‘One Minnesota’ is we’ve got to be able to move people efficiently all across the state, and people have been asking for this, and it’s popular and would bring economic growth. And I’m not a ‘Field of Dreams’ guy — you know, ‘Build it and they will come’ — but when it comes to these projects, that tends to be true.”
In fact, it’s been the case with light-rail projects in the Twin Cities, with the Blue and Green lines spurring significant development and helping alleviate ever-growing congestion. The extension of the Northstar Line to St. Cloud would be a different dynamic, because there isn’t the density in much of the corridor, but it would help efficiently tie two vital metro areas in order to make the region more economically competitive.
So while it’s too early to advocate advancing the extension — that’s what the study and the initial work would determine — it’s never too early to encourage coalitions that can move lawmakers to turn away from politics and craft policy that advances the state’s interests.
Wolgamott put it best. “In these divisive times, where the perceptions of Republicans and Democrats are just at each other’s throats, I think that the work that Sen. Relph and I are doing can be used as a model here at the Capitol, and throughout the country, of how to set aside differences from the campaign and come here and govern.”