Minnesota Senate derails train to Duluth

People step off of a train onto a platform.
Passengers disembark the Metro Transit Northstar train at the Big Lake, Minn., stop on Thursday, April 1.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

The Minnesota Senate voted Monday to prohibit planning for a new passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, which is known as the Northern Lights Express.

Lawmakers amended the transportation section of a larger supplemental budget and policy bill with the prohibition language. It would prevent the state transportation commissioner and the Metropolitan Council from spending any money on the project.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, was the author of the amendment. He said the proposed passenger train is not the type of transportation that Minnesota needs.

“The Northern Lights passenger rail system is a bad idea that is a 19th century solution to transportation in Minnesota,” Osmek said. “It’s like asking us to spend money on buggy whips.”

Proposed rail project
The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would connect Minneapolis and Duluth. Stops along the way would include Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis.
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Transportation

The vote for the amendment was 35-31. The larger bill passed 40-26.

Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth, argued that the passenger rail project is strongly supported in her city. McEwen said it would bring an economic boost.

“Not only are my constituents really excited about this project and really excited to have passenger rail service, but regionally and all along the route we’re excited to have this passenger rail service,” McEwen said.

But some lawmakers along the route disagreed.

Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said he’s not hearing the enthusiasm.

“The people in my district aren’t interested in this project anymore,” Rarick said. “To them it’s dead.”

Democrats also tried unsuccessfully to remove language from the bill that blocks the Minnesota Department of Transportation from spending money on planning for study planning or engineering of the ReConnect Rondo project.

The vote on the amendment offered by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, was 35 against to 30 in favor.

The governor and legislature agreed last year to spend $6.2 million for initial planning for the project, which supporters say could help repair damage from the routing of I-94 through the predominantly-Black Rondo area of St. Paul.

Bill sponsor Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he opposes the funding because he believes the ReConnect Rondo project has nothing to do with transportation, and he was not part of last year’s agreement.

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