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Commuter rail to the Twin Cities’ south suburbs? Minnesota lawmakers lift ‘gag rule’ on studying proposed Dan Patch line

The topic had been off-limits since 2002, when lawmakers from some communities along the route objected.

Northstar Commuter Rail trains at the platform of the Target Field Station in the North Loop neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis.
Northstar Commuter Rail trains at the platform of the Target Field Station in the North Loop neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

For the last two decades, Minnesota law has forbidden state or regional transportation planners from studying a commuter rail line between Minneapolis and the southern Twin Cities suburbs.

No longer. This session, state lawmakers lifted the “gag rule” on the proposed Dan Patch commuter line, which would run for 44 miles along an existing stretch of rails between Northfield and the Target Field transit hub in downtown Minneapolis.

The topic had been off-limits since 2002, when lawmakers from some communities along the route objected. Much of the former Dan Patch railway winds through mostly-quiet suburban neighborhoods. After being sparsely-used for years, opponents feared that running regular commuter trains down these lines would harm property values and adjacent wetlands.

Proponents have long hoped for a transit alternative that could ease road congestion in the southern suburbs. On the average day in 2022, 287,253 vehicles crossed the three busiest freeway bridges over the Minnesota River. One 2001 feasibility study suggested a Dan Patch commuter line could carry 7,500 riders on the average weekday.

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“As I was door knocking, I heard from a lot of folks about the transportation issues that we have down here — a lot of congestion,” said Rep. Jess Hanson, DFL-Burnsville, who originally authored the repeal legislation. “There’s only a few ways across the river and all of them are treacherous depending on the time of day.”

Various commuter buses have run south of the river for years. Metro Transit’s Orange Line began service along Interstate 35 between Burnsville and downtown Minneapolis in 2021 — but Hanson said the buses haven’t shortened travel times in the way commuter rail might. She also said that modern commuter trains are quieter than those contemplated in the 2001 feasibility study.

What the Dan Patch line’s next steps would be

More barriers to a new commuter rail project remain. The Legislature’s $1.3 billion transportation budget only repealed the prohibition against studying the Dan Patch line, but included no money to actually study the idea.

Lawmakers did not act on a separate bill that would have called for a rail study “in a corridor from St. Louis Park to Savage.” That study would’ve left out the southern half of the originally-envisioned Dan Patch line; Lakeville is home to some of the line’s staunchest opponents.

Next session, Hanson said she plans to reintroduce a bill ordering MnDOT to conduct a fresh Dan Patch commuter rail analysis, though her goal would be to fund the study without using state money. Interested cities might underwrite the cost, Hanson said.

Even moving ahead with that study would likely generate controversy. The Dakota County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to keep the gag rule in place. The commissioners expressed their “unanimous agreement” that building a commuter line along the Dan Patch route would be both unpopular with residents and “prohibitively expensive.”

“Trains have not traveled through Lakeville and Burnsville for at least 30 years,” the commissioners wrote. “The track is in poor condition and transverses many neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive areas that would make upgrades to meet a passenger rail safety standard nearly impossible.”

Critics also point out that the Twin Cities’ first commuter rail project — the Northstar Line, from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake — has struggled to attract riders at the volume planners expected. Pre-pandemic, ridership numbers were steady but didn’t reach levels that planners hoped for. When the pandemic hit, ridership cratered by 90% and has yet to recover.

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Hanson contends that planners in the south metro could learn from the Northstar project: “I think we can look at what they did wrong and do it better,” she said, adding that forthcoming audits could help lawmakers “get into the weeds” of the north metro line’s shortcomings.

Who might want a new study of commuter rail to Northfield

While the former gag rule bound the state and Met Council from seriously considering the Dan Patch line, nothing has prevented planners at the city or county level from exploring the idea over the last 21 years.

Most recently, in 2017, the city of Edina hired a consulting firm to survey residents and study the idea. Along the route, they found staunch opposition to lifting the gag rule and only lukewarm support for the Dan Patch line. (Hanson noted Edina’s mayor was fine with lifting the gag order this year.)

Officials in Savage — many of whom have long supported the line — funded their own study, eager to find some way to alleviate congestion from commuters on state Highway 13 and the U.S. Highway 169 bridge.

Still, “the reality is a rail is operated by the Metropolitan Council and governed by the state of Minnesota,” Savage Mayor Janet Williams said at a February hearing on the bill. “They need to be part of the study, but the Legislature is not allowing it.”

In 2011, the Office of the Legislative Auditor urged lawmakers to repeal the gag rule: “If the Met Council is expected to take a regional view in planning and developing transit, it needs to be able to consider all potential transit corridors in the region and evaluate them using objective measures.”

“That gag order was purely bad public policy,” Hanson said. “That’s not a good way to do public policy to simply tell local governments they can’t talk about something that affects their community.”

But Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg, a former Republican state lawmaker from Lakeville, said there was value in keeping the gag rule in place, preventing planners from spending taxpayer money on a proposal that she felt lacks public support. A commuter line, she added, might undercut the Orange Line, which had more promise to be self-sufficient.

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“The Met Council is kinda the favorite whipping boy — and I’ve certainly participated in that sport over the years myself,” Holberg said. “But taking off this guardrail on these lines unleashes the opportunity for various state agencies and the Met Council to do things in conflict.”

But the political landscape has changed since Holberg battled the original Dan Patch proposal during her time in the Legislature. Many long-conservative southern suburbs have been drifting into the DFL’s column in recent years, including Hanson’s district bridging Burnsville and Savage.

Hanson said tossing these prohibitions is about a generational change in leadership: younger south metro residents are hungry for transit alternatives, she said.

“We’re millennials. We’re going to be running the state in the next 50 years,” Hanson said. “What does it look like to lead in the face of some of these Boomer ideologies? Like, we can’t keep just saying, ‘Oh well, they did a [feasibility] study [in 2001], so we must be OK.’ We have to have the political courage to really stand up and say, ‘No, this is what we’re fighting for.’”

The Dan Patch line isn’t the only commuter rail proposal getting a second chance: Lawmakers also repealed the prohibition against the Met Council studying a rail line from the Twin Cities to Rochester.