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Where’s Our Train?

Date Published: 03/05/2019

Author: Brendan Klein

Steve Martin and John Candy made us all laugh in their 1987 comedy classic “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” an epic tale of transportation frustration, some heroic and hilarious improvising between modes, and eventually succeeding.

What is not funny and remains a classic and growing problem for thousands of Minnesotans every day is getting back-and-forth from Points A in St. Cloud and Central Minnesota to Points B in the Twin Cities, a distance of just 70 miles.    Planes are not really an option for this short distance.  And extra frustrating for those of us constantly navigating this congested corridor is the knowledge that an excellent and affordable commuter train service, the Northstar Line, ends 27 miles short of St. Cloud.

St. Cloud residents and Central Minnesotans basically have just the automobile option, a congested and dangerous path along I-94 or U.S. Hwy 169.   The I-94 corridor is one of the most, if not the most trafficked section of highway in Minnesota, with estimates of over 180,000 drivers commuting per day. Traffic is more than just a nuisance, it is a safety concern. A 2016 CDC report on leading causes for death found that unintentional injuries, in which car accidents are included, are the third leading cause of death for U.S. citizens and the first most common cause of death for people aged 10-44.  People like me. 

I am a senior at Saint John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. We have a student population of about 3,500 undergraduates, many of whom are out-of-state and international students. Demographic projections show that the most of the Midwest, including Minnesota, will not be graduating a significantly higher number of high school graduates, and our colleges in central Minnesota will face stiff competition from other states for a dwindling pool of students.

In order for schools like mine to remain attractive, we need Central Minnesota to be attractive to these new prospective college students. And we are. We have nationally recognized academics, athletics, and student organizations. People want to come to CSB/SJU, St. Cloud State University, and to the good life in Central Minnesota.

But easy and affordable access to the Twin Cities is becoming a bigger attractiveness factor all the time.  I recently sent a survey to the whole student body in order to gauge student demand for extending the Northstar Line. More than 400 responded within 36 hours that they would use a train if available and 200 submitted personal stories highlighting their harrowing “Steve Martin-esque” sagas getting to and from the Twin Cities. Most touched on how expensive current transit options are, the complexity involved finding ways to and from destinations on ends, as well as concern for personal safety, especially during the winter months. What stood out to me is how many students said they would use a train to more frequently attend concerts and sporting events, or to go home if they lived in the Twin Cities.

Of course, having this transit option does not solely benefit college students and a fast-growing, bi-partisan Central Minnesota coalition,  as well as consensus from Twin Cities opinion leaders,  bear this out.  The obvious pluses are adding up:  local businesses in Central Minnesota and the Twin Cities would have an expanded consumer base; people who still choose to drive will benefit from fewer cars on the road; low- middle-income workers benefit as gas bills go down. This proposition is a big winner for both regions.

Currently, the Northstar commuter rail runs from Target Field to Big Lake, MN, about 27 miles southeast of St. Cloud and has been in operation since 2009. One-way tickets are comparatively cheap, costing $6.25 from Big Lake to Target Field. The ride lasts under an hour and is infinitely safer, offering amenities that include work tables, bike storage and free wi-fi.

Again, safety can’t be stressed enough, both immediate and long-term, with respect to climate change.  According to a Northwestern University economist, riding a train is 17 times safer than driving. The train is eco-friendly and allows greater efficiency in time management.  Many of us are imagining how much easier it would be to work on a business proposal or a school project in the comfort of a train.    And with the rapid growth of ride-share programs, along with improving and extensive public transit systems at both ends of the Northstar, the train option becomes increasingly attractive.

Of course, costs for new construction of stations and logistical problems with using rail lines already currently used for freight must be considered.  The specific proposal now in front of the Legislature is a bill that would fund an $850,000 assessment, analysis and review of a line extension, and up to $6.5 million in bonding predesign work.

This should be an easy call and checks all the boxes:  bi-partisan, benefitting both Greater Minnesota and Metro Minnesota, good for business growth and health,  good for public safety and community, good for economic equity.  Let’s finish the Northstar Line!
 

Brendan Klein is a senior at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and from Bloomington.  He was a Growth & Justice intern in 2017.

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