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Duluth train picks up steam at Capitol

ST. PAUL - Judy and Gary Gordon want to hop the train. Federal and state lawmakers and local government officials still have to approve a Twin Cities-to-Duluth passenger rail proposal, but the retired Duluth teachers are ready now. "It's awesome,...

ST. PAUL - Judy and Gary Gordon want to hop the train.

Federal and state lawmakers and local government officials still have to approve a Twin Cities-to-Duluth passenger rail proposal, but the retired Duluth teachers are ready now.

"It's awesome," Judy Gordon said of the prospects of riding the train, which last ran between Duluth and the Twin Cities in 1985.

Gary Gordon remembers riding on that old train, to see a then-girlfriend, and getting a lot of work accomplished while on the tracks.

The retired teachers - who just opened a T-shirt, button and hat business - were among 400 Duluth and other St. Louis County residents who visited the state Capitol Monday in an annual trip to tell lawmakers about the city's legislative priorities.

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After a day of citizen lobbying, the St. Louis County residents mingled with legislators, lobbyists and state workers at a National Guard armory near the Capitol to discuss those priorities. It traditionally is the most popular event local communities host in St. Paul.

Right inside the door was a St. Louis County booth promoting the railway plan, which has been around for years but now appears to be gaining support.

Ken Buehler, executive of The Depot in Duluth, said the time is right for rail.

When Gary Gordon last rode from Duluth to the Twin Cities, gasoline cost 85 cents a gallon and today's tourist destination of Canal Park was a Grandma's Restaurant and a junkyard.

And with today's mobile telephones and laptops, "now your train time is productive time," Buehler said

Lawmakers this year are looking at spending $1.8 million to study the line, which would use Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks and right of way. The project could cost anywhere from $200 million to $400 million to launch, but backers say it could pay its own way once it begins.

Buehler said any train speed faster than 79 miles per hour would generate a profit.

"You got to beat the car," said John Ongaro, St. Louis County intergovernmental relations director.

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And the line cannot expect permanent government help, he added. "We can't run it with a subsidy."

The goal for the passenger service beginning is 2012 to 2014.

A sampling of legislators from outside the Duluth area at Monday night's gathering showed the as-of-yet unnamed train could win widespread backing.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said even though he lives in southwestern Minnesota, he could support it.

"You have to remember that Duluth is a big city," he said, adding that as a senator he supports the entire state.

"I think it could be done," said the top Senate Republican on transportation issues, Sen. Mike Jungbauer of East Bethel.

Jungbauer said he recently was in San Diego, where a rail system impressed him. Especially good was locating passenger rail trails next to existing freight tracks, much like planned for the Duluth line, he said.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said the rail plan, which would stretch into Superior, Wis., does not rise to the level of immediate needs for the city, such as fixing a retirement financial problem, but is important over the long term.

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It helps that northeastern Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is a strong rail line supporter.

"The stars are aligned," Ness said.

Added state Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth: "As long as Oberstar doesn't retire, we'll be OK."

Duluth tourism, especially, would benefit, he said.

Unlike three Twin Cities' rail projects, the federal government would pick up at least 70 percent of a Duluth line cost. The Twin Cities' lines are a 50-50 split between federal and local money.

Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, has been in the Legislature 36 years and sees the proposal more popular among his colleagues than ever, even if his constituents don't talk much about the prospect of rail.

"Mass transit is important," he said. "We are running out of energy."

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