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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.”

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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