A major derailment at the capitol 

Betting good money on light rail rather than investing in freight rail infrastructure is a losing gamble.

During last year’s legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz and his minions at the capitol rushed to approve nearly $200 million in funding for master planning a new passenger railroad line that would “chug” people from the Twin Cities to points north, ultimately near Duluth.  

In their hurry to fund an unneeded “snail rail” solution to a transportation problem that many Minnesotans are convinced does not exist and is unaffordable, the Legislature overlooked, or perhaps deliberately ignored, the real elephant in the room in Minnesota’s rail sector: the deteriorating condition of much of our state’s freight rail infrastructure.  

Regional freight railroads — the so-called “short lines” — make up the “last mile” local delivery services supporting our state’s businesses and industries. It is the rail sector’s version of FedEx landing raw materials and commodities on the doorsteps of Minnesota manufacturers, fabricators and processors, and in turn, delivering finished goods and other end products to the large Class I railroads for delivery across the United States.  

According to the latest “Scope of Need Report,” from RailNow.us, which forecasts the amount of future capital investment needed to repair and replace short-line infrastructure and line extensions required to serve anticipated business expansions, the outlook is grim. Compiled and published by Busch +Partners, a Minneapolis-based business strategy and government relations firm, the just-released 2024-2029 report details urgently needed projects identified by cities, counties, and individual short lines over the next five years, for a combined total capital investment of more than $205 million. This report identifies the specific repairs and upgrades needed during that period to keep freight rail infrastructure (much of it put in place nearly a century ago) from further deterioration.  

As they rushed to fund the Northern Lights dream, the DFL legislative majorities and Walz ignored the real-world needs of Minnesota’s freight rail industry. The latest report illustrates the increasing impact of inflation on the scale of the funding challenge, with the anticipated capital need expanding from $150 million one year ago to the predicted $205.9 million over the next five years.  

The state’s unaddressed freight rail repair and improvement costs have been ignored in public discussions regarding economic development policy and infrastructure preservation and modernization. In the meantime, the surrounding states with whom we compete — Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota — have each invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years to improve and expand their freight rail systems.  

The capital investment problems of the short-line freight rail industry cannot be ignored by the governor and DFL legislators year after year. Freight rail is the backbone of Minnesota’s future growth. Continuing to ignore it while chasing will-o’-the-wisp dreams of new passenger rail the state doesn’t need is clear evidence of their fundamental ignorance of the realities of the state’s economy.