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Minnesota’s proposed ‘train to nowhere’

After many national new stories and countless late-night talk show jokes, most people are familiar with the infamous congressional boondoggle, the “bridge to nowhere.”

Now, right here in Minnesota we have our very own pork-barrel spending project that rivals the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere.” It is the “train to nowhere.”

The “bridge to nowhere” was a $398 million project named after the Gravina Island Bridge, and was proposed to replace the ferry service between Kethikan, Alaska, and nearby Gravina Island, population 50, where the Ketchikan airport is located.

In 2006 the bridge project became the subject of national attention when it became emblematic of congressional pork-barrel spending.

The “train to nowhere” is a proposal to run a passenger train along a 150-mile route from Minneapolis to Duluth at a construction cost of $400 million.

One basic rationale
The only rationale for this concept seems to be that because we have a train between downtown Minneapolis and the airport, somehow we should also have a train from Minneapolis to Duluth.  The other reason for this proposed rail line might be that 80 percent of the capital cost would be federally funded. This seems justified because Rep. James Oberstar’s 8th Congressional District contains most of the area through which the train would travel. And as chair of the House Transportation Committee, he is in a great position to earmark the funds for his district.

Why dub this project the “train to nowhere”? Not because Duluth isn’t a great city to visit, but because Duluth is not on the way to anywhere, except maybe Grand Marais, a town most Minnesotans have never seen. Add to that, the only time most people would ever want to go to Duluth is in the summer.

However, the main reason to term this boondoggle the “train to nowhere” is because most of us who would want or need to travel to Duluth would prefer to drive. Who would want to take the option of driving to a train station, parking the car, waiting for a train, and then upon arriving in Duluth, be without transportation? This might be a great option for those participating in Grandma’s Marathon, if after their 26-mile run they wanted to walk back uphill to catch the train back home, but it’s not an option for most folks. And we cannot forget the “train to nowhere” is estimated to make the trip from Minneapolis to Duluth in 3½ hours. That’s right, just a little more than one hour longer than it takes to drive the same route!

At a cost of over $400 million, a true boondoggle
The “train to nowhere” would cost over $400 million to build, cost millions more each year to operate, and add an hour more to the trip to Duluth than if you drove. It’s a true boondoggle by anyone’s definition.

So whose brain child was this anyway?  Not our state transportation department’s. It was dreamt up by several county commissioners in counties along the proposed train route. These are some of the same county commissioners who complained there wasn’t enough money for road construction and lobbied for a gas-tax increase. These are some of the same county commissioners who voted to increase the sales tax for transit. These are some of the same county commissioners who have already spent almost half a million dollars of taxpayer money for a $400 million “train to nowhere.”

There is no logical reason to spend taxpayer dollars on passenger rail service to Duluth.  That is what planes and buses are for if you don’t want to drive. It’s time for the Legislature to take state transportation decisions away from myopic and self-serving county commissioners.  
Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the current president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. The eight-term lawmaker chaired the House Tax Committee and two other House panels.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/24/2008 - 11:34 am.

    There are several problems with this article. Krinkie may consider Duluth “nowhere”, but for someone in Duluth, this train goes to the Twin Cities. I think most Minnesotan’s think of the Twin Cities as somewhere.

    The second problem is that Krinkie ignores the casino’s in Hinkley, which are a significant destination that is between the Twin Cities and Duluth. All the studies of ridership indicate this would be a significant source of trips.

    The third is that this project is still in the design stage. The 3.5 hour trip length used by Krinkie is based one scenario and not the most likely one at that.

    So what we are left with is an anti-transit, pro-auto diatribe that ignores the potential benefits of a high speed rail connection. Just what you would expect from a politician.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/24/2008 - 11:40 am.

    Come on, Phil, that was one of the most egregious straw man arguments I’ve seen in quite a while. How about if I said that the only reason for Phil Krinkie’s existence is that his birth was heavily subsidized by his parents’ employers?

    Anyone who isn’t blinded by radical anti-government ideology can see the reason for a train to Duluth: it would connect Minnesota’s two largest metro areas.

    True fiscal conservatives can see the merit in trains travel, as it is the most fuel-efficient form of transportation. Only lunatics like Phil Krinkie hate government so much that they ignore the fact that private autos are ultimately much more expensive to society as a whole.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/25/2008 - 09:26 am.

    Thanks Phil for the great article!!

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/25/2008 - 04:07 pm.

    Wow. I’m happy to have been elsewhere when all of this shooting from the hip was going on over here…someone could have gotten hurt with all of the rhetoric flyin’.

    Alex Bauman let fly with: “Anyone who isn’t blinded by radical anti-government ideology can see the reason for a train to Duluth: it would connect Minnesota’s two largest metro areas.”

    The good people of Rochester would likely take issue with that statement since they currently enjoy a population that exceeds Duluth’s by over 12,000 Minnesotan’s. To say nothing of a reputation as a world-wide preferred destination for medical services.

    Alex followed that up with another wild shot: “True fiscal conservatives can see the merit in trains travel, as it is the most fuel-efficient form of transportation.”

    That is true when you are considering hauling cars, or coal. But hauling empty passenger cars back and forth? Not so much.

    There is no reliable basis to conclude that there is sufficient potential ridership is either necessary, or if you exclude pie-eyed environmentalists and nanny staters, is even desired.

    Rail has proven a reliable, if wildly expensive, solution for highly populated urban areas (think San Francisco Bay area, New York, Boston). But cities of a comparable size with the Twin Cities, like Portland, have learned some tough lessons about what 80% subsidy really means to support a rail line that is ignored by the majority of commuters.

    Of all the hip shooters assembled, Matt Roznowski provides perhaps the most reasonable (certianly the most position in that he relies upon the unvarnished, fact free, leftist rhetoric of the true believer.

    Doesn’t make him any more correct, but there is the entertainment value to be considered.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/25/2008 - 11:00 pm.

    Normally when Phil Krinkie is against something, I am for it. But I am not sure how a train between Duluth and Minneapolis makes any sense at all.

    The train makes sense in high-density areas, where it can relieve traffic congestion, i.e. the Northstar line. I can see running a train up to Forest Lake or something, but all the way to Duluth? How many people commute to and from Duluth? I would have to think that for most of the trip the train would be nearly empty.

    The trip to Duluth (or to Hinkley) by car is also a very easy one. Its a straight shot up the freeway. Taking the train would be slower and generally less convenient, and you are stuck in Duluth without your car. A train to Duluth is solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

  6. Submitted by John Hoffman on 11/26/2008 - 01:38 am.

    If you build it they will come. We need an alternative to the car only model to get around reliably. Krinkie’s article focuses very much on the viewpoint of the here and now and the past. Thinking forward, a passenger train linking these two metropolitan areas could and will be augmented by systems that do not yet exist. People and communities can be creative when given some tools and infrastructure to work with. The whole idea of Zip Cars, which are gaining popularity in busy cities on the coasts and in Europe could be a solution to not having a car once you get off the train. Additionally, I know the cities north of the twin cities have plenty of commuters coming in to work from Forest Lake to Pine City who would jump at the chance to not have to drive the two hours a day and use that time to work on the train, sleep, or read the paper instead of worrying about the grind of driving. I see a lot of advantages and yet unimagined benefits to having a passenger train connecting these two metro areas.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/26/2008 - 09:59 am.

    Pine City is 68 miles from downtown Minneapolis. Even if you ran the train all the way up there, there would be another 86 miles of track running to Duluth.

    And even if they had zip cars available in Duluth, it would still be much more convenient to drive your own car there. The commuters you mention would take the train because it is more convenient. There is no incentive to take the train to Duluth if you have a car.

    Again, the ideal situation would be to run the train out to Forest Lake or somewhere outside of the metro area rush hour congestion. Commuters from Pine City and other cites north of Forest Lake can drive to the station and park.

  8. Submitted by Eric James on 11/28/2008 - 11:45 pm.

    I heart comments about planning related activities! I personally am somewhat ambivalent about the Northern Lights Express. From a long-term governmental point of view, it does make sense, there is incredible population and job growth in urban areas most of which will be in the state’s metropolitan areas. Long-term investments at this level are cheap and provide coverage for future demand. The MN/DOT road budget ranges from $400-700 million a year with a recent tax kick-in that will accelerate it to 1 billion in 2010. Operating the rail line will be “a few million more” a year not in the 100 of millions.

    Lingering issues though must be resolved before implementation. Will growth achieve demand and capture potential for a rail line? Will there be infrastructure dollars and motivation by local governments to achieve the intermodal activity needed to ensure train service is accessible and usable? Will private activity and development clustering become active upon the line’s construction?

    Another issue is the greater context. While mass transit options are heavily needed in the Twin Cities area of 3 million people, in what planning context does a passenger rail line toward northern Minnesota fit in? I can’t imagine “self-serving” county commissioners over-ruling the State on a rail line that trespasses our entire territory. The impetus for rail has always been toward the south and southwest where highway travel is limited and inefficient. Perhaps a less conservative state administration will give the public an actual long-term plan for Minnesota.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/04/2008 - 06:57 pm.

    Man this pisses me off: I got told by the best writer on this page. And he didn’t even get his facts right: Duluth’s metro population was 240k to Rochester metro’s 120k in the last census.

    His thing about empty rail cars not being fuel-efficient is technically true but as irrelevant as saying an empty glass doesn’t quench your thirst as well as a full one. Government subsidizes every mode of transportation. It is in our best interest to subsidize the one that will move the greatest number of people at the lowest cost, otherwise known as rail transit.

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