Report calls for repeal of Dan Patch commuter rail study ban

Tucked inside a Legislative Auditor's report on transit released last week is a recommendation that lawmakers repeal an obscure state law that prohibits planners from studying commuter rail service from Northfield to Minneapolis.

The so-called Dan Patch corridor was once considered a possible commuter rail route that would link fast-growing southern Twin Cities suburbs to downtown Minneapolis. An influential lawmaker says he'll make another attempt to repeal the law that prevents study of the idea.

State Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he's no fan of commuter rail, but said there's no reason to prohibit discussing the idea.

"Prohibiting even consideration or discussion of any one corridor just doesn't make any sense to me," Beard said. "In fact, I find it really annoying."

But state Rep. Ann Lenczweski, DFL-Bloomington, doesn't see it that way. Lenczewski was a co-sponsor of the prohibition, and she says she'll work to keep it in place.

"To take it out of prohibition of study and say, 'Let's start studying something that we don't even have money for and the communities that abut it are vehemently opposed to,' I think is just sort of an exercise in futility, and I hope we keep the prohibition on," she said.

The little-known 2002 state law prohibiting study of commuter rail for the Dan Patch corridor may have remained obscure, if last week's review of Twin Cities transit service by the legislative auditor hadn't called attention to it.

The report recommends repealing the prohibition so that planners can evaluate all potential transit corridors.

"Prohibiting even consideration or discussion of any one corridor just doesn't make any sense to me."

The corridor is named for Dan Patch, a world famous harness racing horse in the early 1900s.

The horse's name was attached to a still operating freight railroad right of way that runs from Northfield to Minneapolis.

Back in the 1990s, transportation planners started studying the rail line for possible commuter rail service, which would pass through neighborhoods in Lakeville, Bloomington and Edina, among other cities.

Bloomington City Council member Tom Hulting, who said his home is relatively near the line, is opposed to the idea.

Hulting argues commuter rail would disrupt neighbors and lower property values.

"I think the people that live in quiet residential neighborhoods along the way whose property is going to be devalued now because a train crosses between them and a park, crosses between them and a neighbor is not worth it," Hulting said.

Former state Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington, pushed for the law back in 2002 and said it was designed to give lawmakers more control over what the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other agencies were studying.

"The prohibition was that they had to advise the legislature what proposed studies they were going to do," he said.

In fact, the state law prevents agencies from spending any money for, "study, planning, preliminary engineering, final design or construction" for a commuter rail line in the Dan Patch corridor.

The law also requires the Metropolitan Council to, "remove all references ... to the rail line from any future revisions to the council's transportation ... regional master plan."

Attempts in past legislative sessions to repeal the prohibition have failed.

The Metropolitan Council and counties are studying or already developing eight Twin Cities transit corridors, including the Central Corridor light rail line linking downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.

That's in addition to the two transitways, Hiawatha light rail and Northstar commuter rail, already in operation.

Given federal, state and local government budget problems it's not clear how many of the eight, with the possible exception of the Central Corridor light rail line, will someday offer rail or bus service.

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