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'Dan Patch moratorium' bans talk of south metro commuter rail

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Dan Patch rail car
The owner of Dan Patch, the racehorse, created the rail line in 1907 to connect Minneapolis to his farm in Savage. The symbol for the line was a horseshoe with a lightning bolt.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Buried deep in the Senate transportation bill at the Minnesota Legislature is a dead horse -- actually, a rail line named after him. The Dan Patch line, named for a famous early 20th century race horse, carries freight between the Twin Cities and Northfield.  

The idea of bringing back passenger service along that route is so controversial that lawmakers passed a special law to halt discussion of it more than a decade ago. 

The Dan Patch rail line  snakes through St. Louis Park, Edina and Bloomington, before connecting south to Savage, Lakeville and Northfield.  

The rail line has been in operation since the early 1900s. The president of the company that started the train service, M.W. Savage, also owned Dan Patch. His plan was to use the railroad to bring passengers to the town of Savage so they could view his famous horse. The rail line became known as the Dan Patch line and was used as a promotion for the horse. 

The passenger service ended in 1942, but the rail line still carries freight trains.  

Dan Patch and driver
Dan Patch broke the world record in horse racing, running one mile in 1:55 at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 8, 1906. Dan Patch's owner created the rail line in 1907 to connect Minneapolis to his farm in Savage. The symbol for the line was a horseshoe with a lightning bolt.
Minnesota Historical Society

Some commuters would like to see passenger service restored, so lawmakers are considering whether to lift the "Dan Patch moratorium."

State Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, is still wary of the idea.  Erhardt was one of the original sponsors of the Dan Patch prohibition in 2002.  He said it's one thing to have freight cars move  along at 10 mph, and quite another to add the commotion and speed of passenger service. 

"It runs through a lot of backyards," said Erhardt. "You'd have to acquire a lot of right-of-way, and the other commuter lines are not successful."

Erhardt and representatives from other Twin Cities suburbs put a stake through the idea of resurrecting passenger service with the 2002 law that prevented the Met Council from studying, planning, designing or constructing the Dan Patch commuter rail line. The law also ordered the Met Council to remove any references to Dan Patch from its regional transit master plan.

1913 Dan Patch route
A 1913 map of the Dan Patch Passenger Electric Railway, running from the Twin Cities south through Northfield and beyond.
Image courtesy Northfield Historical Society

Although opponents of the law called it a gag order, Erhardt said the Dan Patch Commuter Rail Prohibition prevented the state from wasting time and money on a doomed proposal.

"Call it whatever you want," he said, "it's a stop on a foolish project."

Northfield City Council member Suzie Nakasian doesn't see it that way.

"We shouldn't settle policy by gags," said Nakasian, who helped found the Northfield Grass Roots Transit Initiative. "We should look at all options and see where taxpayers' money is best spent. ...I just don't think putting a prohibition that holds the rest of us hostage is quite fair, or the way to do it."

Northfield's representatives in the Legislature also want their city back on the transit map.  State Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, has been working to undo the Dan Patch moratorium since he first won election in 2008.

Waiting for the train
In this photo from the 1920s, students from Carleton College and St. Olaf College in Northfield wait at the train station for the Dan Patch passenger train to take them north.
Photo courtesy Northfield Historical Society

"It was one of the first things I had taken up," Dahle said. "We did get it out of the House and Senate once, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pawlenty."

This year, Dahle managed to push what he calls a watered down version through the Senate; it would allow the Met Council to study the corridor again. But the bill didn't receive a hearing in the House, where Erhardt chairs the Transportation Policy Committee. A conference committee will decide whether the Dan Patch moratorium stays or goes. 

As for the Met Council, it supports the effort to allow open discussion of the project.

"The Council supports lifting the prohibition because it is an impediment to regional planning," spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge wrote in an email. "That's not a statement about the corridor itself, but rather a statement in support of being able to plan transit for the region without restrictions on specific corridors. The Council will obviously act according to the law."

Erhardt said it would be fine if a private company wanted to develop passenger service on Dan Patch, but he doesn't want government to pay for it.

Nakasian said her community is far from reaching a consensus on the need for passenger rail service, but the rail corridor named for a famous race horse ought to have the chance to be put through its paces again.