Progress on Minnesota's transportation needs ran into a brick wall during last year's legislative session. Lawmakers, particularly those in the House, were not about to budge in their opposition to a transportation funding package.
Roads and bridges weren't the only casualties of this brick wall of opposition. Plans for the Northstar Corridor, a commuter rail system running from the Twin Cities to Rice, also fell by the wayside. Funding for this system has already been approved at the federal and county levels within the corridor.
However, other states are salivating at prospects of securing federal funding and Minnesota's window of opportunity to take advantage of the federal and county funding is rapidly closing.
The commuter rail system, which follows the Highway 10 corridor, would use the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad line. The Highway 10 corridor is the fastest growing transportation corridor in the state and is one of the three fastest growing corridors in the nation. Population along that corridor is increasing by the rate of about 100,000 people every 10 years.
The result is transportation gridlock in and out of the Twin Cities. That means products and people can't efficiently be transported between outstate Minnesota and the Twin Cities.
Paul McCarron, chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority Board, and an Anoka County Board member, said Monday that a good transportation system is a key component to making the Twin Cities a vibrant, economic engine for the state. Years ago he owned a McGregor business that trucked products to the Twin Cities only to waste time in heavy metropolitan traffic.
"You're paying a guy to sit in the truck and read a book," he said during a visit to Brainerd Monday.
Echoing the board's public relations slogan, McCarron said the idea of commuter rail "just makes sense. Other points he emphasized during his visit:
-- Commuter rail uses railroad beds and tracks that are already built. It would add a manageable amount of rail traffic to a BNSF system that only carries about 40 to 60 trains a day.
-- Commuter rail would get 3 million people off the highway annually and if commuter rail demand grows in coming years all that needs to be done is add more rail cars. Nothing needs to be built.
-- Many outstate motorists who are uncomfortable driving in the Twin Cities would take advantage of a transportation mode where they could relax and not worry about the possibility of rain or snow.
-- Fridley's Medtronics, one of the state's largest corporations, is located along the corridor.
If the Legislature doesn't take advantage of this chance to build a commuter rail system lawmakers will regret it. The state price tag for the Northstar Corridor is 40 percent of the construction costs or about $123 million. That figures out to about $3.7 million per mile compared to the estimates of about $10 to $50 million per mile to upgrade existing roads or build new ones.
If the rail corridor is approved there are indications it could expand to the Little Falls-Camp Ripley area. Even if it doesn't it deserves the support of area lawmakers. It's one more tool to ease traffic congestion and help Minnesota's people and products travel safely from Point A to Point B.
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