The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb “railroad” as; “to push through hastily or without due consideration.”
Our Anoka County Board of Commissioners recently voted 4-3 to withdraw from the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance. Commissioners Rhonda Sivarajah, Matt Look, Andy Westerberg and Robin West voted for the withdrawal. Commissioners Dan Erhart, Carol LeDoux and Jim Kordiak voted no.
Fortunately, there are still some people in government who have the courage to make the right decisions; even when they may present a political risk. I believe that the four commissioners who voted for the withdrawal did the right thing for our citizens. The proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) would likely be just another government project that would not live up to the hype. Future costs would be another burden dumped on us taxpayers.
There are already regular bus services between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Why should we use taxpayer funds to operate a train between these cities? That could only drive cheaper and more-efficient private companies out of business? This would make no sense!
Commissioner Erhart told me several years ago that the present Northstar Commuter Rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake would definitely be profitable. The theory was that it would be cheap because the tracks were already in place and were being maintained by the railroad company. It hasn’t turned out that way.
The Northstar Rail loses about $1 million a month. Passenger fares cover only about 20 percent of the operating costs. We taxpayers pick up the rest. A sales tax increase of .5 percent was added for Anoka and Hennepin counties to offset some of the costs in 2008.
The number of Northstar riders has been in a continual decline from the start. Passenger counts were 710,426 in 2010, 703,427 in 2011 and is projected to be 688,200 this year. The number of passengers was down 183,000 in 2011 from what was originally projected. The new Ramsey station is expected to add only 200 per day.
The Metropolitan Council is taking the desperate action of cutting fares as much as 25 percent on Aug. 1 through April to see if it can increase the number of riders and reduce losses. That will be a drop from $7 to $6 from Big Lake and from $4 to $3 from Anoka and Coon Rapids. Will this help or will it just increase the size of the taxpayers loss? Only time will tell.
The current Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance proposal for the NLX from Minneapolis to Duluth is an entirely different situation. This is a proposal to resurrect a passenger train line that has been dead for over 27 years. It died a natural death, as it was economically unsustainable because of a lack of customers. The federal and Minnesota governments had decided to stop the train at that time and cut the taxpayers losses.
The North Star was a passenger train operated by Amtrak. It originally ran from Chicago to Duluth via St. Paul. It was eventually cut back to only a local train between the Twin Cities and Duluth in 1981. The reason for the change was economics. Amtrak is a federal government-owned corporation. The train was partially funded by the state of Minnesota.
The population of Duluth had declined from 107,884 in 1960 to eventually stabilize around 85,000. Duluth is considered by many to be “where the rust belt began.” The U.S. Steel plant was closed in 1981. The closing of shipbuilding, heavy machinery manufacturing and the Duluth Air Force Base then followed this.
The Duluth to Twin Cities train service was briefly stopped completely in September 1982 when there was no more money for operations. The reader can see the news reports on the last runs of the Duluth North Star Amtrak train here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL5NaF7hg6U.
After the September shutdown Amtrak requested $27,000 to run the train on weekends and peak periods. Duluth businessman Jeno Paulucci offered $25,000 to do this. Then-U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger had Amtrak run an audit of its funds. That uncovered an additional $100,000 for limited operations for a while longer.
Minnesota state funding for the Duluth to Twin Cities North Star line finally ran out in March 1985. The train made its final run on April 7 of that year. This rail route died because it was no longer justifiable financially.
I can understand the sentimental and emotional attachments that some people have to trains. I have had many railroad people in my family. However, there are many miles of abandoned railroad tracks that are no longer economical to operate in America. It is time to move on to the future and stop reliving the past.
Hats off to those public officials who have the common sense and courage to stop wasting taxpayer money on a project that will very likely prove to be financially unsound. We need to re-elect them and elect others with the same wisdom.
Find out where the candidates stand on such issues before you vote. The primary is Aug. 14 and the general election is Nov. 6. Let’s not get railroaded again!
Chuck Drury is an Anoka resident, retired engineer and former technical director of Federal Cartridge Company.