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Duluth asks to delay LS&M railroad vote

Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad along the banks of the St. Louis River. (2015 file / News Tribune)

An ordinance that would designate a scenic rail line as a local landmark worthy of preserving could go to a vote by the Duluth City Council on Monday, but city administration has asked that the proposal be tabled.

Instead of acting on the proposed ordinance, the council is being advised to set it aside until city officials learn more about what the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and the Environmental Protection Agency expect Duluth to do after a substantial portion of the city-owned rail line is removed to allow for the cleanup of contamination on the site of the former U.S. Steel plant through which the tracks run.

Right now, staff remain unclear what will be asked of the city, said Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services.

"I will renew my request for the City Council to return this back to the administration until we get answers," he said at a council agenda session Thursday night.

"That's really going to spell out what our next steps are, and I feel that at this time, from the administration's standpoint, this kind of makes that a little bit murky," said Hamre, who had previously spoken out against the proposed landmark status.

The Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission has recommended the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad — a 6-mile line now operated as a volunteer-run scenic service — be designated as a "heritage preservation landmark," but it will take City Council approval to bestow that designation.

Councilor Joel Sipress asked Hamre what the landmark status would mean for the city, and Hamre responded: "This designation requires that any repairs, any work, any construction activity on the railroad would have to be reviewed and approved by the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission. And if the commission felt that it was not keeping with what they saw as the restoration plan, they would have authority to deny that work or that request."

But any ruling by the preservation commission still could be appealed to the City Council, which has authority to overturn it.

"So does it limit our ability to make decisions regarding the railroad? It does limit those abilities because it requires another group to be involved in the conversation," Hamre said.

Council President Noah Hobbs said Thursday the council could vote to return the resolution to administration that very night at its agenda session if it so chose, but Sipress said he wanted to hear from Michael Poupore, chairman of the Preservation Commission before deciding to table the ordinance.

The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad opened in 1870, bringing rail service to Duluth for the first time, and it played a major role in fueling the city's growth. Years later, commercial trains stopped using the line, which runs along the banks of the St. Louis River, and much of the inactive corridor became city property, although U.S. Steel still retains ownership of some of the tracks today.