Superior wrestles with high-speed rail

Calling from somewhere in the middle of Lake Superior in late September, Steve Raukar had endured 50-mph winds and 14-foot waves the previous night -- harrowing stuff, he said, for a nonsailor. "I'm a multimodal person," he said. "To prove it, I'...

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Calling from somewhere in the middle of Lake Superior in late September, Steve Raukar had endured 50-mph winds and 14-foot waves the previous night - harrowing stuff, he said, for a nonsailor.

"I'm a multimodal person," he said. "To prove it, I'm sitting out on the Paul R. Tregurtha coming back to Duluth having brought a load of coal to Lake St. Clair."

As president of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's board of commissioners, among other posts, the St. Louis County commissioner wears multiple leadership hats related to transportation in the Northland.

It was in his role as chairman of the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority that had him weighing in from midlake on the topic of the Northern Lights Express - the prospective high-speed passenger rail line connecting the Twin Ports and Twin Cities that has been years in the making. The project has been pared from $1 billion to roughly half that by reducing prospective trips from eight to four daily at maximum speeds of 90 mph, instead of the originally hoped for 100-plus mph.


The development process has included several communities along the proposed route, but never truly Superior, which is scheduled to be one of the featured stops before the trains cross the Grassy Point Bridge and head to the Duluth Depot.

That could change when the Superior City Council votes Tuesday on whether to spend the $5,000 annually it takes to gain a voting seat on the Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail Alliance Board.

"They're going to be one of the benefactors once this gets completed," said Raukar, who chairs the board. "Whether they come to the table early, in the middle or at the finish line, Superior is going to be impacted by this."

Jason Serck is the economic development, planning and port director for Superior. He said it would be a misnomer to say that Superior hasn't been part of the process for what is being called the NLX. The city has been actively involved in finding a potential station location as well as the environmental review processes that are ongoing, he said.

But with the way that development has taken the long game, Superior, Serck said, simply hasn't been in any hurry to pony up the money necessary to be a part of the protracted planning. Until now, the city has been mostly content to be apprised of NLX developments.

"I think the timing is right," Serck said. "You wouldn't think $5,000 is much, but in these times it's something you have to wrestle with - $5,000 going to something other than potholes."

In addition to a September letter from Raukar to Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen encouraging the city to come aboard the planning process, University of Wisconsin-Superior Chancellor Renée Wachter wrote Hagen in August urging Superior's participation and saying the rail line figures to increase enrollment.

According to Wachter, 35 percent of UWS students come from the Twin Cities area, and "that number had the potential to continue to grow."


"Offering these current and potential students the opportunity to commute via convenient passenger train has the potential to make our quality, affordable university a destination campus with much greater connectivity than other competitors," she wrote.

Indeed, the NLX organizers have identified the millennials of Generation Y as prime users of the potential service.

"Millennials are not as attached to automobiles as their predecessors," Raukar said, setting up the NLX as a prized transportation alternative for Twin Ports' colleges and universities.

Making Superior one of six official stops along the NLX has been in the plans from Day One, said Ken Buehler, Duluth Depot administrator and chairman of the technical advisory committee for the NLX. The Federal Railroad Administration-approved route would leave Minneapolis with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Hinckley before skirting across the state border into Wisconsin and stopping in Superior before crossing into Duluth.

"You have to go where the tracks go, and the FRA has approved this particular route," Buehler said when asked how Superior became a stop despite its lack of involvement to date.

At this point, Buehler said of Superior, "It's in their best interest to represent themselves."

Superior City Councilor Tom Fennessey agreed, telling the News Tribune that unless a compelling argument is made against the project at tonight's meeting, he will support Superior paying $5,000 to get involved.

"We may need some more information, but it's not a controversial issue," he said, adding that despite having already passed the 2017 general budget, the city councilors do have options. "I've always been a supporter. If it is going to happen, why not capitalize on that and become a partner on this whole thing? As long as the payback is there and as long as statistics show benefit to the community as a whole."


Fellow City Councilor Warren Bender voiced his support, too, but only conditionally - wondering aloud where the city would get the money without having itemized the annual dues already.

"If the money could be found, and it wouldn't adversely affect any other department, I wouldn't be opposed, but that's the big bugaboo," he said. "I'm noncommittal, but I favor the concept."

Stopping in Superior, likely in the neighborhood of the Super One Foods along Belknap Street, figures to be a boon to the city, Buehler said. For one, it'll be a shorter trip for travelers headed south to pick up the train in Superior - an attractive convenience for business travelers who would shave about a half-hour by leaving from Wisconsin instead of Duluth. For another, "where people get on and off is where commerce is done, and that part of railroading hasn't changed," Buehler said, envisioning a commercial district springing up around a prospective station in Superior.

But one Douglas County supervisor isn't so sure the City Council will vote to join the alliance - at least not yet.

Nick Baker has been attending the NLX meetings in Pine City on behalf of Douglas County for years - first as a voting member and currently as an observer reporting back to the county. The Douglas County Board stopped paying the $5,000 annual fee for voting participation, Baker said, because of austerity measures being imposed on the county by the state government.

"Both the city and county are so strapped for money because of the changes in our state and our funding," Baker said. "We're really hurting. We felt (as a board) we had so many local needs to address before we continued to put money into something so far into the future."

Baker said support in the county favors the NLX - seeing the advantages for tourists and students, in particular. But in terms of throwing their chips onto the NLX planning table, that's another story.

Said Baker of the upcoming City Council vote, "I'm sure they're going to say no."

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