Mass transit was back on the docket during a recent meeting of state officials, local big wigs and community voices at the Northland Arboretum.

The April 2 discussion was led by members of the Region Five Development Commission, who formed the Region Five Regional Transportation Coordinating Council with help from a grant intended to identify transit improvement options in Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison counties.

As Brainerd resident and attendee Robert Owens noted, transportation remains a pressing and relevant issue-even if it isn't eye-catching to the average citizen.

Until it is.

"Transportation is a forgotten thing until something bad happens," Owens said during a phone interview, Friday, April 5. "We just all take transportation for granted-that our bread will be delivered on time and things like that-and the only time it's important to us is when things don't work right."

This isn't Owens' first time stumping for passenger rail. He's a former railroad employee sporting 10 years of experience in management with New York Central Railroad in Missouri and attended a March 6 rally down in St. Paul to advocate for extended commuter lines into Greater Minnesota.

Primarily, discussions revolved around bus transit and its implementation in Crow Wing County and the Brainerd lakes area-particularly for young, disabled, elderly and impoverished residents who use public transit the most and depend on it in their daily lives.

According to 2018 data published by the Region Five transportation committee, Crow Wing County ranks 57th among 87 counties in the state in transportation costs, accounting for 30 percent of an average family income.

While efforts by Region Five officials factor as a step in a larger initiative by the state to address mass transit needs in Greater Minnesota, the collaboration by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Department of Human Services indicates a new direction.

"It's an effort to blend transit with the populations who need it," said Todd Holman, a Baxter City Council member. "It's happening at multiple levels."

Owens said local representatives, consultants and activists are waiting to see how Gov. Tim Walz's budget bills fare in the divided state Legislature before they make any decision or chart their next moves.

Walz's $49.5 billion biennium budget includes an 8% increase in transportation funding to bulwark the state's flagging infrastructure and transit systems. Notably, the budget placed strong emphasis on $1.27 billion for capital improvements, revamping bus transit (particularly in the Twin Cities metro) and raising the gas tax by 20 cents. In addition, Walz allocated $11 million to leverage federal matching funds to develop passenger rail corridors such as the Northern Lights Express to Duluth and a second daily Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Bus transit is at the forefront right now-both in Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities-but passenger rail remains a pertinent and vital option, Owens said. Some politicians-notably, state Reps. Dan Wolgamott, Alice Hausman and Frank Hornstein, and Minnesota Sens. Melisa Franzen, Jerry Newton and Senate President Jeremy Miller have all spoken publicly in support of passenger rail.

On the other hand, lakes area politicians gave responses that ranged from cautious and tepid, to opposition or lack of familiarity with passenger rail proposals in Greater Minnesota.

That's fine, Owens noted, it's just a matter of public transit advocates getting out there and stumping for a cause that looks to benefit Greater Minnesota communities.

"Good publicity wouldn't hurt a bit," Owens said. "It's really up to us to generate the interest in it. If people have to decide, they just have to look at our neighbors in Illinois and other states, to see what those services generated for the populace in terms of improvements and new business."

As the Fargo Forum reported in mid-September, installation and upkeep of a proposed Chicago-Twin Cities-Fargo line, plus additional routes to 35 cities in rural Minnesota, would be shared between Minnesota and Wisconsin for about $1.5 million to $2 million a year-significantly cheaper than highways, which can cost millions per mile of pavement.

Estimates indicate the rail could grow the number of Minnesotans using long-distance train service by 150,000 to 200,000 riders a year and generate about $8 million in revenue for Minnesota, the Forum reported. Currently, about 140,000 Minnesotans use long-distance train service each year.

Area legislators respond

Local elected officials-including state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, as well as state Sens. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point-gave their thoughts on the prospect of commuter railroad in Greater Minnesota.

State Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, did not return repeated requests for comment. Heintzeman declined to conduct a phone interview and opted to communicate via email.

• Heintzeman said more due diligence needs to be done before residents and their respective representatives can make a decision on passenger rail in Greater Minnesota. "It should be considered very cautiously," Heintzeman wrote in an email. "The cost is significant and the ongoing subsidies to support passenger rail are typically very high. To that point, I have co-authored legislation that would study the feasibility of bringing passenger rail to Camp Ripley."

• Ruud said she wasn't familiar with any proposals to build passenger rail in Greater Minnesota and said she couldn't recall it being discussed with any depth during government functions for mass transit.

"I don't know anything about that issue," Ruud said. "It's not a topic that we have addressed on any committee I've been on, during any caucus I've been to, and I've talked to my staff and no one's ever addressed that issue at all. Not at all. Not ever."

There are a number of reasons why she might be out of the loop, Ruud said-whether because it's a topic of interest more for metro lawmakers, or lawmakers aren't being kept apprised of the issue by conventional means, but she did express skepticism in passenger rails viability at this time.

"We're stretched for dollars," Ruud said. "I just can't imagine that we can add that to the plate at this point and time."

• Gazelka said the investment in light rail in the Twin Cities in recent years has come at the expense of other infrastructure initiatives in the state. Instead, he noted, the state should look to bankroll and bank on the skeleton of its transportation system-roads and bridges.

"That's where I want the focus to be," Gazelka said during a phone interview. "There's nothing wrong with dreaming light rail and what could be, but if we don't take care of what we have first we could be on the wrong track."

• Lueck said he doesn't see the benefit in establishing passenger rail-balancing its installation and upkeep with need and demand in rural Minnesota-for communities in Aitkin and Crow Wing counties, as well as the rest of Greater Minnesota.

"I'm just not sure what that's going to do for the people of Aitkin and Crow Wing County. Frankly, let's get real on this whole question," Lueck said. "If there's an area of need, it's the transit systems that supply our local communities and citizens. It's really not up on my priority list."