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Peter Passi, Forum Communications Co., Published November 15 2010

Election could derail proposed train service

Depending on whom you believe, the Northern Lights Express is either on track or hopelessly derailed as a result of the recent election.

Duluth City Councilor Jim Stauber, long a critic of the proposed passenger rail service between Duluth and Minneapolis, contends it’s time for the city to accept that the project is likely going nowhere, given the new political reality.

“I would hope my colleagues would not renew funding for a project that’s not going to happen,” he said of the initiative, dubbed NLX for short.

But Council President Jeff Anderson says Stauber’s dire diagnosis is off the mark.

“The project will no doubt be affected by changes the election will bring, but I don’t think it’s dead,” Anderson said. “I remain optimistic it can still happen.”

The upset of 8th District Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Chisholm, by Republican Chip Cravaack of Lindstrom was one of the biggest developments of the election. Oberstar, the outgoing chairman of the powerful House Transportation Commission, strongly supports NLX’s proposal for the 155-mile line.

But his successor, Cravaack, has been critical of subsidies to support new passenger rail service, telling the Duluth News Tribune the day after the election, “I love railroads. Railroads are great … but unless they can pay for themselves, I just don’t see it being practical.”

Steve Raukar, a St. Louis County commissioner and chairman of the NLX Board, said Thursday he had just written a letter to Cravaack congratulating him on his victory and asking for an opportunity to bring him up to speed on the rail initiative.

Raukar said he hopes to share with Cravaack the compelling story of a project that would create jobs and foster future economic development along a corridor that “runs right through the heart of his district.” Yet Cravaack has called such considerations secondary to his priority of growing jobs to create a more favorable business environment.

Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner, an NLX proponent, called the loss of Oberstar “devastating” and Cravaack’s position “an obstacle.”

“But I don’t believe any obstacle is insurmountable,” she said. “Once he (Cravaack) is presented with the facts and what’s at stake, I’m hopeful he will see things differently.”

Cravaack’s opposition isn’t the only challenge the project faces. Duluth Councilor Todd Fedora pointed out that for the first time in recent memory, the Minnesota Legislature – both the House and Senate – will be controlled by Republicans. And he predicted state matching dollars will be hard to come by as the Legislature seeks to address an anticipated $6 billion budget deficit.

Fedora said the state’s budget woes coupled with the conservative tilt in the Legislature would probably result in less state aid for the city of Duluth. He pointed out that Local Government Aid from the state accounts for more than one-third of the city’s total revenues, making Duluth particularly vulnerable to cuts.

“If ever there was a time to curtail discretionary spending, it is now,” Fedora said.

He characterized the outlook for the rail line as “very bleak” and said that if the city continued financial support of the project, “we’d be throwing good money after bad.”

Regardless of the current political winds, Duluth Mayor Don Ness said it would be wrong for the city to turn its back on NLX, saying, “I’m not giving up on passenger rail.”

Peter Passi is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune