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Citizen petitions for voters choice on passenger rail

Already, millions in taxpayer funding has been committed to a proposed high-speed passenger train between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports. But for one Superior man, spending local tax revenue on the proposal is more than he can bear. And Don Raiha...

Already, millions in taxpayer funding has been committed to a proposed high-speed passenger train between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports.

But for one Superior man, spending local tax revenue on the proposal is more than he can bear.

And Don Raihala plans to find out if others feel the same way about the costly venture he's convinced taxpayers would support for a long time to come. After all, Amtrak eliminated its service to the Twin Ports in 1985 because it was not profitable.

Thursday, Raihala plans to kick off a petition drive to find out if others feel the same way about spending local tax money on the passenger rail proposal. He hopes to gather more than 1,300 signatures and perhaps a few volunteers to help gather those signatures to put the issue to the voters.

At the Tea Party rally 4-6 p.m. at Bayfront Park in Duluth, Raihala plans to start seeking signatures of other Superior residents who would like a chance to vote on the issue to provide direction to the Superior City Council about whether local tax dollars should be spent in support of the proposal.

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"The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Northern Lights Express (NLX), over the past year, have had four local meetings open to the public to discuss the potential of high speed rail servicing the Twin Ports area," Raihala said. "Unfortunately, these meetings were very weakly attended by the public, but that did not hinder their decision-making and aggressive pursuit of state and local funds."

A couple years ago, the city committed a few thousand dollars through the tourism fund to a study of the proposal, said Mayor Dave Ross. However, the city council has not committed any additional funding.

According to the 2010 funding formula presented to the Duluth City Council in January, Superior and Douglas County would need to commit $24,000 to meet the budget proposed for the planning process in 2010. While the city of Duluth approved paying that city's share - $48,000 - to the Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance in January, neither the Superior City Council nor Douglas County Board have even considered funding the organization.

That's a small price when compared to construction and ongoing support costs for the project expected to cost hundreds of millions to construct, according to Raihala. He said he grew concerned about the added tax burden three Superior city councilors serving on the Metropolitan Interstate Commission - Dan Olson, Warren Bender and Ed Anderson - voted in favor of a resolution supporting development of the passenger rail service in December. Douglas County Board supervisors Nick Baker and Jim Paine who serve on the panel also supported the resolution. Supervisor Mike Coyle voted against the resolution to support reintroduction of rail service to the Twin Ports.

Raihala said he's not planning to knock on doors to look for people concerned about the proposal, but he does plan to make himself available for anyone who wants to sign the petition between Thursday and June 13, the timeline he has to gather the necessary signatures to get the issue on the ballot in November.

He plans to be at Center City Park near the library for the next three Fridays in the late afternoon to gather the 1,340 signatures he'll have to gather within 60 days to give voters a say in local spending for the project.

Raihala said he foresees significant tax increases on an annual basis when local cost sharing in the project's construction and annual operating expenses are taken into consideration.

Ross said he doesn't believe the rail is going to become a reality; he'd be involved in fighting the costly proposal if he thought it had a chance of gaining traction and becoming a liability for Superior.

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However, he said, "I have no problem with citizens who take up a cause and want to speak as a community as a whole to those issues. I think that's a very important part of our political process."

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