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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Anoka County is the New Wisconsin

January 21, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

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.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Bernie Bauhof says:

    January 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Have you ever wondered why so many conservatives replaced liberals in November? Could it possibly be that the liberal (aka progressive) agenda does not resonate with the electorate? We had an election and the people of Anoka County spoke. We were simply fed up with a county board that allowed no citizen forum. Ridership on the Northstar Line missed projections by 21%. A recent “free ride” week did nothing to attract more riders. The Fridley station is a ghost town. It was -21F this morning and even that was not enough to add passengers at Fridley. On any given day there may be a half dozen cars in the Fridley lot. The Coon Rapids and Anoka station do better but that is due primarily to the fact that when the Nothstar line went live the downtown bus service that normally served those two areas was terminated. The Northstar line was touted as the cure for the congestion on Highway 10. It was not. Adding a third lane to the highway relieved the congestion and now the fact that there is no congestion on highway 10 is being used for a reason why ridership on the Northstar line is down. The economy is also being trotted out as another reason why ridership is down yet the Hiawatha line ridership for the same period is up. Explain that one. Businesses and residential development was to spring up all along the line. They have not. The executive committee of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority decided to recommend not applying for federal funding for the project’s second phase citing less than adequate ridership numbers as the reason; not conservative transportation policy activists and not the new Anoka County Board.


  • Alec says:

    January 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    We used to have vision in America. The interstate transportation network was overkill in the 1950’s, but led us to super power status for the 20th century.

    Some people want to build for today. Some people want to build for tomorrow. China is building for the next century. Conservatives want to build for the last century.

    Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way.

  • Mike Bryant says:

    January 21, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    It makes no sense to stop it in Big Lake.  It will be interesting to see if $4.00 gas will change things.  My guess is that we will see an increase,  and more riders will get to see how nice a trip this is.  The Twins and Vikings saw a benefit from the line.  Nice look at the consequences to real people when short sighted funding turn downs come from partisan protectors of the gas guzzlers.

  • Retha Dooley says:

    January 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

    People who continue to insist that high-speed rail is an example of “bloated government budgets” are either delusional or have their mind-set firmly planted in 1956 or both.  We can not continue to race our fuel-hungry, single-passenger vehicles up and down our crumbling highways and expect to, or say that we are “saving” money; how ludicrous!

    The folks who are crying the loudest to save money are the very ones who have “blinders” on and will not consider moving into the 21st Century.  Until or unless we are willing to invest in mass transit, getting rid of our gas-guzzling behemoths, we will continue down this unsustainable road of “manifest destiny” or as I see it; me, me, me.

    If the goal is economic development for the state then one has to consider mass transit as a vital part of that economic development.  An educated workforce, available and economic transportation, and adequate housing will be necessary to move Minnesota forward; tax cuts alone will not get us there.

  • Bob says:

    January 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

    It must be nice to live in your world. Yes, populist rhetoric does resonate better with voters. Short term goals are easier to voice and understand than long term goals. The question is: who has the interests of the state and the country at heart? I cannot recall a political faction that acted on belief in the face of facts like the modern conservative movement. So what if undereducated youths are guaranteed to be a drain on society. My kids are educated! So what if the wealth gap is the greatest predictor of social decline? I have mine! Just because the people who can set their own salaries are making the most money should not mean we need to encroach on FREEDOM!

    It is that kind of “from the gut” thinking that has reduced by all measures the quality of life in this state. I just hope the chickens come home to roost with enough people before we enter free fall.

  • Bill Graham says:

    January 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    The Northstar commuter train suffers not only from its lack of a St. Cloud connection, but also from a network of commuter bus services which Metro Transit operates in direct competition with its own train service.  Rather than feeding the trains at suburban park-ride lots, the buses continue to run all the way downtown.  Worse, the bus fare is less than the train fare!  One wonders why Metro Transit hasn’t rectified this contradiction.

    The struggle to create a basic rail service for our region goes back to the early 1970’s.  Conservatives have fought it to a standstill repeatedly, and that appears to be happening yet again.  Complicating it is our patchwork municipal government where well over one hundred “cities,” counties, state agencies and special service districts make effective decision-making cumbersome at best.  Little wonder that other mid-sized metropolitan regions have forged ahead of Minneapolis-St Paul in creating modern, effective transit services.

    Bill Graham
    Burnsville, MN

  • noagendas says:

    January 30, 2011 at 12:01 am

    How interesting it is to read opposing views.  This issue is one that raises the ire of liberals and conservatives alike.  One clings to the view that “trains don’t pay for themselves”.  How ridiculous!  Name a road that does pay for itself!  Only toll roads generate revenue and I suspect many of them are still subsidized.  The other side wants trains no matter what the cost.

    Using the criteria that everything must pay its own way for what government does is simply unrealistic.  We would need to close all the libraries, turn the prisoners back to the streets, and close the universities.  While there are those among us that may believe these are ideas worth considering, most of us agree this is folly. 

    Trains will take time to gain traction and popularity.  Many American cities use their train system and appreciate having an alternative to the crowed roads, expensive parking, and increasing gas prices. These cities have a history of using mass transit for decades.  How can the opponents of Northstar have such unrealistic expectations with the train having operated a scant few months?  This is not failure, it is the ramp up period required to change habits.  One thing for sure though, Anoka County needs to expand its service in order to increase ridership and serve a greater number of the area residents.

  • eric z. says:

    February 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Be on notice. Matt Look does, however, want a Northstar stop in Ramsey, where there currently is none because transit people deem its ridership potential insufficient to justify the expense of a stop.

    Matt Look lives in Ramsye and was on the city council.

    You want consistency, principled consistency?

    Then don’t look in the GOP, where they are conservative about spending on pork for others, but not conservative when it comes to the port they crave. Then all bets are off.