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Maggie Stanwood / By Maggie Stanwood  

Prior Lake resident Tal Mizrahi gets Jake, a thoroughbred horse, ready to jump at Wild Rose Stables in Webster. The stable offers lessons, training and boarding for horses.

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Local legislators seek to repeal controversial Dan Patch moratorium (copy)

Savage officials say they’re still hopeful that one day passengers will board Minneapolis-bound commuter trains in Savage on the existing Dan Patch rail line.

Since 2002, a controversial state bill has banned the Minnesota Department of Transportation and any other state agency from considering the idea.

New technology, increasing road congestion and changing transportation habits are leading newcomer legislators from Savage and Bloomington to speak out in favor of repealing the ban and once again study the possibility of passenger trains connecting the north and south side of the Minnesota River.

Savage leaders said they also support the possibility.

“We are trying to be visionary,” said Savage Mayor Janet Williams. “And we aren’t talking about (commuter rail) tomorrow, but we have to start talking about it.”

The Dan Patch Line connects Northfield to Minneapolis, crossing the Minnesota River in Savage and passing through Bloomington, Edina, St. Louis Park and other suburbs as it winds into downtown Minneapolis.

The line was built over a century ago by M.W. Savage and once carried passengers to the stables of Savage’s record-breaking horse, Dan Patch. The line carried passenger trains and automobiles at various times throughout the 20th century.

Today, the Dan Patch line is used to carry freight between Savage and Minneapolis.

The Dan Patch Moratorium, better known as the “gag order” among local officials, was pushed into the 2002 Senate transportation bill by Republican lawmakers from Bloomington and Edina. The line’s proximity to residential homes created noise, safety and aesthetic concerns that were at the core of the opposition.

The moratorium bans state agencies and the Metropolitan Council from spending anything on work that would further explore the possibility for commuting on the line. It also required that references to the railroad be erased from various documents.

A renewed interest

State Rep.-elect Hunter Cantrell (D-Savage) said he is in favor of repealing the moratorium and studying commuter rail in the area, calling the Dan Patch line an essential component of a well-balanced approach to transportation.

Cantrell said he believes there will be bipartisan support for repealing the ban and he’s hopeful that it will happen with the help of a DFL majority in the Minnesota House.

State Rep.-elect Steve Elkins (D-Bloomington), who will represent parts of Bloomington, Edina, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, said any new studies or designs should reflect changes in railway technology and federal regulations.

A 2001 MnDOT study indicated that the only feasible and legal option for commuter rail would be large freight trains, similar in scale to the Northstar Line. The study showed that additional residential land would need to be acquired to make the Dan Patch line’s turns more gradual for the large trains.

“There was an enormous amount of opposition from residents that lived along the railway line,” because of that finding, said Elkins, a transportation economist by education.

But Elkins said new technology could be better. Diesel Multiple Unit vehicles are light-rail sized hybrid trains that use a diesel engine to generate electricity to run an electric motor. The Dan Patch line was built for early DMUs, and no additional land would be required for modern DMUs, he said.

Continuous safety fencing along the line, welded tracks that eliminate the “clickety clack” sounds and quiet zone rail crossings are other advancements that Elkins hopes would alleviate past concerns.

“There are so many new legislators for the affected communities who might have a more open mind,” he said about the new session. “I expect there will be a renewed interest in seeing it lifted.”

A part of the solution

Savage City Administrator Brad Larson said there’s no silver bullet to the metro’s growing congestion problem.

Traffic volume forecasts in the Scott County 2040 Comprehensive Plan project the worst performing areas of the county’s infrastructure will remain over-capacity in the next 20 years — even with the entire wishlist of infrastructure projects being completed.

“You can’t build out of this,” Larson said, looking over traffic maps of the county.

The Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency recently named repealing the moratorium one of its 2019 legislative goals.

“We don’t want to be caught in a situation where we’ve done zero planning and we’ve looked at zero options besides more lanes and more bus service,” Larson said. “We want to be able to look at all options, and we can’t do that right now because of the Legislature.”

As far as automotive traffic, studies have shown that it won’t be feasible to one day reopen the Dan Patch line river crossing to cars because of the infrastructure needed, Larson said.

A 2015 study sponsored by the City of Savage and Scott County determined that the river crossing could be used recreationally for foot or bicycle traffic.

Changing habits also drive the conversation around transit-oriented development in cities such as Savage.

Younger generations are less reliant on cars and prefer alternative transportation, Williams said. Businesses looking to operate in the south metro are interested in the types of transportation available to future employees, creating another incentive for cities to look into commuter rail.

Without the moratorium, Williams said they could also explore creating a connection to the Mankato-to-St. Paul passenger service.

“It is poor policy, that’s the basis of it,” Williams said about their hopes of a repeal in 2019. “Can you think of anything else where they’ve said in legislation that we can’t talk about it?”

A New Year's Eve at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel

Most images of New Year’s Eve tend to be the same.

Women wear glitzy, glittering dresses and are caught mid-twirl, champagne glass in hand and neon lights behind. Men wear wide smiles and thin ties as confetti explodes from the ceiling and drifts to the ground.

Many New Year’s Eve celebrations do not and cannot live up to these expectations, and many people are presumably fine with that — clinking plastic champagne glasses and kissing a loved one at midnight in living rooms.

Some people, however, want to get as close to the ideal as possible: the bright lights and loud music and a throng of strangers to join them. I am one of those people.

For those in the southwest metro, there are few options outside of driving into the cities, finding parking (and a sober ride home, if drinking is involved), researching locations and, often, paying to get in.

Which is where Mystic Lake Casino Hotel comes in. New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest nights at the casino, which aims to recreate the atmosphere of the downtown clubs without the price tag or the distance, Mystic Lake Casino Hotel Brand Marketing Director Johnny Mackin said.

“We’ve always made a big deal of it,” Mackin said. “It’s cliche to say, but there’s really something for everyone. It’s a fun, festive atmosphere with a lot of fellow partygoers. It’s a great night to come out and game also.”

And so it was. I headed to the casino around 9 p.m. with the fiancé to ring in 2019. On the surface, the casino seemed as it normally does, with the hum (or roar, depending on your sensitivity to noise) of the slot machines.

But throughout the gaming floor and at various stations were markers of the impending new year — selfie stations and tables of free party favors.

“People lose their mind over getting something that blinks,” Mackin said.

There’s nothing to hate about party favors. The cost is nothing, it adds festivity to an outfit, and there is something about wearing a kitschy hat or tiara emblazoned with “2019.”

I grabbed a pink tiara and a blue noisemaker, and my fiancé snagged a purple hat. We snapped a picture in front of giant, white letters proclaiming “Mystic 2019” before heading to GLO, a pop-up lounge set up in one of the ballrooms.

Lit tables dotted the back of the room, while the front hosted a dance floor and Sweet Siren, a top-hits cover band. The lounge didn’t yet have enough brave souls to fill the dance floor around 9 p.m., so we swayed to the songs a bit before heading back to see if we could get a seat at $2 blackjack.

I had played $1 blackjack at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in the past but had stopped after the minimum changed to $2, as I’m no Rockefeller. But it was a special occasion, and we withdrew double the amount we normally do (a whole $40 each) to play.

We watched for a good amount of time, as $2 blackjack is always popular and the casino was busier than usual. One of the players even trusted me with $20 to get her a drink at the bar so she wouldn’t have to leave and wait in the long line. (There are waiters and waitresses, but she didn’t want to wait.)

A seat opened up around 10:30 p.m., and I sat down and played for a while as the time edged nearer to midnight. I left the table with the same amount of money I had put in, impressive compared to normal.

We stopped to cash out and headed back to GLO shortly before midnight for the countdown. A good amount of people had the same idea; the dance floor was full.

So there it was, the idealized New Year’s Eve. Lights from the stage dipped around the room. The mass of people counted down in unison. Confetti burst from the ceiling. At midnight, people kissed if they had someone to kiss and cheered loudly if they didn’t.

2018 wasn’t the best year for me. I struggled. I felt fear and rejection. I spent most of the year anticipating both tangible and abstract better times on the horizon. But there’s something so hopeful about a solid conclusion and a room full of strangers all toasting to those better times. Here’s to 2019.