Minnesota 2020 Journal: Anoka County is the New Wisconsin
If conservative transportation policy activists have their way, Twin Cities metropolitan transit rail won’t head north and the Northstar line will permanently terminate in Big Lake. This opposition won’t stop transit rail’s development but it may alter metro economic development. The northern and northwestern suburbs would lose as southeastern and southwestern rail corridors carry people, jobs, business, money and growth into Carver and Scott counties.
In the November elections, an ideologically conservative public policy majority won control of the Anoka County Board of Commissioners. After being seated, they wasted little time in asserting their authority. Newly-elected board chair Rhonda Sivarajah appointed newly-elected Commissioner Matt Look to head the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, dumping long-serving Authority head, Commissioner Dan Erhart.
Erhart is an enthusiastic supporter of rail transit’s development. Look, a self described fiscal conservative, is deeply skeptical of rail and mass transit. The new board majority’s roughshod reorganization has been widely interpreted as an overt challenge to Anoka County’s planned rail expansion. The Northern Lights Express line, connecting Minneapolis to Duluth with Hinckley’s tribal casino flagged as a major destination, is likely the first casualty.
The Northstar commuter line links Minneapolis and Big Lake. A second phase will extend service to St Cloud. Over the years, concerted conservative opposition nearly derailed Northstar on multiple occasions. It succeeded in terminating service at Big Lake rather than initially connecting St Cloud to Minneapolis. The new Anoka board majority now threatens the funded and long-planned phase II implementation.
North or northwest, expanding rail transit must pass through Anoka County. That puts any rail authority partner in position to choke development. While conservative policy activists may believe that they’re cutting wasteful government spending, they’re really facilitating economic development in the southern, western and eastern sections of the Twin Cities. By stubbornly refusing to work with adjacent counties and communities, Anoka County is cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Anoka County Regional Rail Authority’s new chair, Matt Look, is a fiscal conservative. He pulls no punches about this. Calling up Look’s campaign website, launches an introductory video, still running from the fall election season. “Let’s stop the waste,” he says, in Anoka County’s $267 million budget. He specifically identifies “a billion dollar train to Duluth,” as an example of “bloated government budgets.”
Listening to Commissioner Look, I hear the Wisconsin rail debate ringing loud and clear.
Last year, now newly-sworn Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ran on a policy platform opposing high speed rail. He declared that the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis line was exactly the sort of bloated government excess that Wisconsin didn’t need. Walker was elected. Walker pulled Wisconsin from the interregional high speed rail project but asked to keep the $400 million in earmarked federal funds. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, no, that’s not how this deal works. It’s this high speed rail project or nothing.
Ohio embraced the same dynamic. They elected a conservative who campaigned against Ohio’s $800 million federal high speed rail grant. Similar results were observed. Today, Wisconsin and Ohio’s rejected $1.2 billion earmarks will increase federal high speed rail project funding in California, Florida, Washington and Illinois. Ideological intransigence sent long-term infrastructure investments rolling down the line. If Wisconsin were Folsom Prison, I’d hang my head and cry.
Wisconsin faces a projected $3.2 billion projected state budget deficit. When conservative candidates suggested that the $400 million in federal rail funds could be retasked to state highway infrastructure needs or to budget deficit reduction, they smoothly and purposefully offered an illegal, impossible policy prescription. It was more emotionally resonant than the truth.
Today, conservative “no new taxes” policy adherents control Wisconsin’s state government just as they dominate the Anoka County Board. If the Anoka commissioners vote to pull out of the Northstar and NLX projects, they will save a small amount of money but lose considerably more. They will significantly lose economic development momentum.
Twin Cities’ metropolitan regional development is not constrained by topography. Mountains or oceans don’t limit development. The land is flat in every direction. Consequently, physical development is almost entirely a political question. Refusal creates opportunity in other places; it doesn’t halt development.
As Anoka County considers a future rejecting rail transit, I hope policymakers contemplate Wisconsin’s experience. First, there were no federal cost savings, as project dollars were simply reassigned to other high speed rail developments. Second, Wisconsin lost the money it had already invested along with rail manufacturing jobs. Third, and this is the kicker, Wisconsin mistakenly assumed greater importance than it possessed. Chicago, not any Wisconsin city, is Midwestern high speed rail’s hub. Economic benefits flow from connection to Chicago.
As soon as the dust settled on Wisconsin’s pull-out, policymakers and rail project planners promptly asked a telling question: why bother with Wisconsin? Minneapolis to Chicago high speed rail can connect through Dubuque, IA. Anoka County needs to carefully balance lost opportunity and momentum against ideologically pure policy adherence. Responsible fiscal discipline also requires long-term infrastructure investment and development. Anything less is irresponsible.