Editorial: The rail funding political climate

Published 11:59 am Tuesday, June 9, 2009

If the federal government had up to $12 billion available for rail transit projects (which it might), what Minnesota effort would it view as most deserving?

We believe — and you might think — the No. 1 answer is expanding the Northstar commuter rail line from Big Lake to St. Cloud. The reality is that’s not necessarily the case. Here is why.

First, there is growing and very vocal grass roots support of other regional rail projects.

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Most notably, the Northern Lights line between Duluth and the Twin Cities is gaining steam. In fact, that project is close to completing its Environmental Impact Statement. Once that is complete, the Duluth project is technically further along than Northstar because its EIS needs to be updated for it to expand.

In addition, southeastern Minnesota (and the Mayo Clinic) are pushing hard for a high-speed link to the Twin Cities. There also is more talk of a line through Willmar and out to Sioux Falls, S.D. And don’t forget about the Twin Cities’ Central Corridor effort.

The other undeniable factor is political support — or lack thereof — at the federal level.

President Obama has made rail transit a high priority. That’s why there is $8 billion to $12 billion up for grabs nationally.

Duluth’s line has the powerful Rep. Jim Oberstar backing it, plus Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Rochester has the support of 2nd District Rep. Tim Walz, Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Meanwhile, even though expanding Northstar has the support of every local and county government, our 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann opposes it. Worse yet, there is no indication that will change even though these funds are new and with them come new criteria for awarding funds.

The good news is local Northstar backers are not giving up, but they need your help.

— St. Cloud Times, June 2