Zip Rail’s dying gasp…

February 16th, 2016


There was a big turn out tonight at Urland Lutheran Church, where at least 100 people interested in the Zip Rail joined Sen. Matt Schmit and DOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle to hash it out.

This project is so “not happening.”  The state has pulled its funding, Olmsted County has pulled its funding, and the North American High Speed Rail Group is on its own (with no money).

County puts spike in Zip Rail project

MnDOT suspends its work on Zip Rail project

The last “Project Schedule” was published in March, 2015, 11 months ago to the date, and from that, it’s obvious this project is going nowhere, because nothing has happened since:

ziprail_program_schedule_031615It seems many people want certainty, want this to END!  They want confirmation that this thing is dead and buried and won’t reappear… but that’s not how these things happen.  It’s moribund, “lacking in vitality or vigor.”  In my humble professional opinion which I voiced at the meeting, based on over 20 years of wrestling with so many ill-advised and pipedream projects, there are two things to do:

Sen. Matt Schmit says the link for comments should be:

I would also send copies to:

Dan Krom

Praveena Pidaparthi
Planning Director

Garneth Peterson
Environmental Coordinator
651-366-3615 and

  • Put feet up, deep breathe, move on, and keep a casual eye open in case it pops up again.

There’s nothing that can be done to force a more certain resolution, and it requires a bit of trust (and maybe experience with public process?) that it’s stopped, is without funding, and that’s that.  Learn to live with it, it’s like a remission diagnosis, because there’s nothing to be gained from spending energy and effort being worried and fretful wondering if it’s going to come back, it’s time to live life.

What’s Chuck Michael going to do now?  What could possibly follow the Mesaba Project “pipedream of green and clean” and then this flop called Zip Rail?!?!


Hot off the press, received from the DOT yesterday:

Environmental Impact Statement suspension

MnDOT has announced the suspension of work on the Rochester-Twin Cities Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan and Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (Zip Rail) process that had a Final Scoping Decision Document issued on Jan. 19, 2015.

This project is a voluntary EIS under state environmental regulations. Public funding constraints, as well as private sector actions to undertake a similar project, have led to this decision. As the Responsible Governmental Unit, MnDOT, along with its partner Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority, determined that the most appropriate step is to suspend the Zip Rail EIS at this time.

MnDOT is also notifying interested individuals and agencies that participated in the environmental review process about the suspension of the EIS.

For more information about Zip Rail in Minnesota, visit MnDOT’s Zip Rail website.

And in the RW bEagle, here’s Alan in the background!


MnDOT commissioner tackles questions on high-speed rail

By Michael Brun on Feb 17, 2016 at 12:05 p.m.

CANNON FALLS — State Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle fielded a barrage of questions Tuesday night from a packed crowd of southeastern Minnesota residents anxious about proposed high-speed rail projects between the Twin Cities and Rochester.

Zelle and other Minnesota Department of Transportation officials took part in a town hall-style meeting hosted by state Sen. Matt Schmit in Urland Lutheran Church. The meeting was called in response to public concern over the recently shelved Zip Rail project and a separate proposal by a private rail developer.

The Minnesota-based North American High Speed Rail Group contacted MnDOT about a year ago to pitch its idea for rights to study and build a privately funded line connecting the two metropolitan centers, Zelle said Tuesday in his opening remarks.

“It was frankly a little vague, and we were very reluctant,” Zelle said of the proposal.

MnDOT announced Jan. 27 it had issued permits to NAHSR to study the feasibility of an elevated high-speed rail line following the Highway 52 corridor — which Zelle said should form a clearer picture of what the company envisions.

MnDOT and Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority meanwhile suspended study on the public Zip Rail project last month due to a lack of funds and “legislative appetite,” Zelle said.

Both projects drew strong criticism from several audience members who questioned the impact of a new rail line on area farmland and whether eminent domain would be used to construct it.

“We’re not standing here just because we don’t like an idea; we’re standing here in defense of ourselves and in defense of our communities and in defense of our homes,” said Heather Arndt with the grassroots group Citizens Concerned About Rail Line.

Zelle said any high-speed rail line — private or public — would require an environmental review process with opportunities for residents to make comments.

MnDOT also announced Tuesday it will include public comments in the state record alongside a Zip Rail alternatives analysis report released just before the project was suspended. The document, which identifies eight potential routes for Zip Rail, can be revisited in the future if interest in the project returns.

Details for submitting a comment can be found at


Yeah, Chucky’s baaaaaack!  And if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…

Chuck Michael is back and he has been for a while on this Zip Rail project.  And it’s a small world, particularly in this public policy and infrastructure area.

Turns out it’s much smaller, he’s been working a couple of sides of this project, Olmsted County and apparently the North American High Speed Rail Group, meeting with officials in “other states.”  And they’ve been to Washington, together, and have been lobbying hard in Minnesota, both Olmsted County and NAHSR:

Zip Rail backers make their case in Washington, D.C.

And look how he’s represented for the conference, Twin Cities HSR Passenger Corridor, on which that article above was based, where an Olmsted County representative and a NAHSR rep are also on the bill:

U.S. High Speed Rail Conference

A project from Las Vegas to LA was waved around as competition to this Metro – Rochester Zip Rail, as in a threat of “build Zip Rail and if not we’ll go to Vegas,” and if so, doesn’t that “competition” mean it’s a conflict, and not working in the interests of Olmsted County?  Or is it that Michael went “out of state” as in to Washington?  It doesn’t say what project he was working on “out of state,” whether it was Zip Rail or something else.  That should be disclosed.

But big picture, I don’t see this as much as a “conflict” as an “reporting” issue, because based on the conference presentation above, their lobbying together, because I’d guess the parties’ interests regarding Zip Rail, the positions/interests of Olmsted County and NAHSR are pretty much the same, though Olmsted County should have more of a sense of working in the public interest.  THAT is a problem, and it’s Olmsted County’s problem and the voters there should address this!

More of an issue is declaration of those interests and where and how much money is devoted to pushing those interests.  Who’s registered with Campaign Finance Board?  Chuck Michael is not registered as a lobbyist under any entity.  Nada…   The essence of his job is lobbying, in Minnesota and nationally, and he’s not listed with the Campaign Finance Board.  Not Olmsted County, and not North American High Speed Rail.   I think it’s time Chuck Michael and the associations he’s working for on this project register and disclose.

Anyone that had anything to do with Excelsior Energy’s Mesaba Project, as Chuck Michael did, needs high scrutiny.


CBS 58

The good news is it didn’t blow up, hasn’t blown up yet… let’s hope that trend continues.  People have been evacuated, and can’t return until… ???

From CBS 58:

35 Homes Evacuated after 1,000 Gallons of Crude Oil Spill in Train Derailment

And our Amtrak “train every day, leaving either way” is not running:

Amtrak Service Disrupted by Train Derailment

From Karl Zarling:



And from CARS of Milwaukee, FYI, 1267 is Bakken BOOM! super-volatile crude oil:



Info on the derailment near Alma, WI is separate below, posted Saturday.

Adam-Rogers-News8000-of-Alma-DerailmentPhoto from

And the good news is that it’s NOT Bakken BOOM! oil, only denatured alcohol and some empty car cars.  The evacuation has been lifted and people are returning.  The other good news is that this means they won’t be shipping on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi anytime soon, with the associated bad news that then they’ll be shipping through Red Wing more often.

Some good photos here:

NOTE: There’s a Minneapolis CARS message below regarding the November 10th Mpls. City Council meeting.

From News8000:

Emergency crews on scene of 32-car train derailment north of Alma

From KSTP 5:

Train Derails in Wisconsin, Prompting Voluntary Evacuation


Here’s the Minneapolis CARS (Citizens Acting for Rail Safety) message:

Nov 10th -- Attention Minneapolis residents: Support 
a Strong Rail Safety Resolution!

Hello CARS network, as we reported last month, the 
City of Minneapolis is preparing a rail safety 
resolution that will come before the Transportation 
and Public Works committee on November 10th. We are 
encouraged from conversations with City Council 
members that the resolution will be a great first 
step forward and that the resolution is likely to 
pass the committee and the City Council. There is 
also understanding that this will be a living 
document that will need updating as more information 
is available. It is important that the City Council 
hear from us to know that the community is supportive 
of this important work. 

There are two ways you can do this:

1) Mark your calendars to attend the Minneapolis City 
Council Transportation & Public Works Committee meeting 
next Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 9:30 am in the Council 
Chamber, Room 317 of City Hall. If you are able to 
attend, please let us know by replying to this email. 
Comments will not be allowed, but your presence will be 
important. Please also plan to stay for a brief press 
conference that is being organized for approximately 
11:30 am. As the media reports this important success, 
it is important that we have as many people in attendance 
as possible showing community support.

2) Contact your Minneapolis City Council member to 
thank them for supporting a strong rail safety 
resolution. Call or Email them with some version of 
the following message, sharing your own personal 
story of living near the rails if you are willing.

I am concerned about the risks that freight trains 
carrying crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous 
materials pose to my neighborhood. I thank the City 
for its leadership in supporting a strong Rail Safety 
Resolution that will protect Minneapolis.

Ward 1 - - (612)673-2201
Ward 2 - - (612)673-2202
Ward 3 - - (612)673-2203
Ward 4 - - (612)673-2204
Ward 5 - - (612)673-2205
Ward 6 - - (612)673-2206
Ward 7 - - (612)673-2207
Ward 8 - - (612)673-2208
Ward 9 - - (612)673-2209
Ward 10 - - (612)673-2210
Ward 11 - - (612)673-2211
Ward 12 - - (612)673-2212
Ward 13 - - (612)673-2213

Cars Contact Info:

Cathy Velasquez Eberhart
Citizens Acting for Rail Safety - Twin Cities

on Facebook at:


Muller: Time to think about…

August 23rd, 2015


Commentary by Alan Muller, Green Delaware, in today’s Delaware State News:

Commentary: Time to think about Delaware’s Peterson, Coastal Zone Act

Delaware’s a mess. The water is rising. We are a major destination for bomb trains. One of the most leaky and dangerous nuke power complexes threatens and pollutes the state and is trying to expand with new reactors. The air and water are polluted. The economy is stagnant and the political system corrupt. The public schools are under attack. The court system is openly dedicated to protecting corporate crime. A tale of woe, to be sure.

Some of it is self-inflicted, like the reopening of the mega-toxic Delaware City Refinery and the resulting routing of bomb trains to Delaware.  Some, like global climate change and sea level rise, is mostly beyond the ability of Delaware to do much about. On the other hand, it could well be argued that little three-county Delaware has done way-out-of-proportion damage to the world, has been a damaging leader in the “race to the bottom.”

What is the cumulative damage to individuals and families done by out-of-control credit card “banks?” Would that have happened anyway, with or without Delaware’s shameful Financial Center Development Act?  Would so many electric ratepayers been screwed over so much without the hundreds of Enron subsidiaries incorporated in Delaware? Maybe they would have just been set up somewhere else.  Would there have been so many bogus bankruptcies and stolen pension plans?  Would the US, or the world, be in better shape without Delaware?  Alternative history can’t be much more than speculative, but there is a case to be made.

Is it possible to imagine a better Delaware? A place to be proud of rather than ashamed of? A Delaware, for example, where John  Kowalko is Speaker of the House rather than Pete Schwartzkopf?  A place where the University of  Delaware symbolizes intellectual freedom rather than civil liberties violations and the worship of capital at the expense of labor?

Well, yes, actually.  There  have been better leadership and better political times in Delaware, within my memory.

Russ Peterson died in 2011.  (Here’s his obit in the New York Times.) Peterson was a significant figure in environmental matters in Delaware, nationally, and sometimes globally.  But it seemed to me that most of what was being written about Russ was the same old stuff, regurgitated for the umpteenth time and not giving us much new or insightful to think about.

Now, three years have gone by, and Delaware’s rulers are pursuing another major attack on the Delaware Coastal Zone Act, the centerpiece, the masterpiece, of  Peterson’s public policy work in Delaware.   So, this seems an appropriate time to think about Russ Peterson.

Peterson was likely the most significant person ever to operate out of little Delaware.  But he didn’t walk on water and he wasn’t God.  He was both more flawed and more interesting than one might see from most writings about him. He deserves more thoughtful commentary than he’s so far received.

Peterson, first of all, not a “Delaware Native.”  He was born, raised, and educated in Wisconsin, and was a product of the relatively progressive atmosphere, at least at that time, of the Upper Midwest.  (For factual information on Russ Peterson see this Wikipedia article.)

If Peterson had grown up in the plantation culture of Delaware, and learned his chemistry at the University of Delaware, would he have made the same contributions?  Maybe, but it’s doubtful.  In general, the human intellect does not seem to blossom in Delaware.

Russ was educated as a chemist and was recruited by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company as a research chemist.  He rose to be director of Central Research and Development.  This would be considered, at least at the time, high in the pecking order of the technical world, or at least its industrial side.  Peterson was a smart man.

Peterson’s interests eventually shifted out of DuPont.  My favorite story of Peterson and DuPont:  At one time he was in charge of a suburban office/lab site known as Chestnut Run Plaza.  At the time, in DuPont, black people could generally have only menial, broom-pushing jobs.  Peterson set up a program to enable and encourage black workers to move up. DuPont’s response was to schedule Peterson for an interview with “the company psychiatrist.”  Mental illness was suspected.

In any case, Peterson got involved in reform efforts in Delaware, notably prison reform. Being of an analytical turn of mind, he figured out how to organize such efforts: a committee in every Representative district, and so on.   Some years of this work gave him good, if imperfect, insight into the workings of Delaware politics.

He wasn’t without his critics.  Tom Colgan, long time campaigner against housing discrimination, used to say “Russ always showed up when the fighting was over.”  Perhaps so.  But Delaware is a place with a narrow intellectual and political space, where perceptions of non-mainstream views generally relegate people to a gadfly role.  In a sense, Russ Peterson’s achievement was to keep close enough to the political mainstream to achieve, at least briefly, real power, yet he was not co-opted from the neck up.

In 1968, Peterson resigned from DuPont and ran for Governor as a Republican.  At the time, the DuPont Company was behind him.  I recall, as the teenage son of a DuPont manager, being turned out to flyer for Russ Peterson.  He won.

But, after the enactment of the Coastal Zone Act in his first term, DuPont turned on him, and told its 25,000 Delaware employees–there are way fewer now, or course–to vote for Democrat Sherman W. Tribbitt, a hardware store owner in the small town of Odessa.  Peterson was out of office after one term.

There were other factors in his defeat, including budgetary miscalculations that required the state to “claw back” spending.  Whether this was a genuine screwup or a trap set for Peterson has never been entirely clear to me.  The budget shortfall was five million dollars.

Peterson also pushed a transition from Delaware’s “commission” form of government to a “cabinet” system.  Traditionally, many governmental functions had been run by citizen commissions.  Some still are, such as utility regulation by the “Public Service Commission.”  The members of these commissions were mostly appointed by the governor but were not, afterwards, directly under his control.  On the other hand, departments of the Executive Branch were. and are, headed by officials reporting to the Governor.  This increased the power of the governor; it made for a more centralized decision-making process.  Like most change, it was resented.

This centralization of power continues:  a disturbing example is the shift of power over schools from elected district school boards to a state Department of Education controlled by the governor.  Many people these days feel that Governor Jack Markell is using this power to attack the fundamental features of public schools and public education, and to implement privatization of the public schools to the benefit of for-profit “education” companies.

After Tribbitt’s one term, hard right winger and special interest servant Pierre S. du Pont IV was installed as Governor for two terms.  DuPont shut down the state planning office and, in general, tried to reverse many of the Peterson reforms.  Many people see his two terms as the time during which Delaware abandoned real representative government and adopted the “Delaware Way” of governance.  The “Delaware Way” could better be called the “Dirty Deals Behind Closed Doors” approach.

So what about this Coastal Zone Act?  What makes it special and worth preserving.

It was based on an understanding that coastal areas, that is, where the water meets the land and the air, are crucial from an ecological perspective and need special protections.  The wording of it is pretty clear:


It is hereby determined that the coastal areas of Delaware are the most critical areas for the future of the State in terms of the quality of life in the State. It is, therefore, the declared public policy of the State to control the location, extent and type of industrial development in Delaware’s coastal areas. In so doing, the State can better protect the natural environment of its bay and coastal areas and safeguard their use primarily for recreation and tourism. Specifically, this chapter seeks to prohibit entirely the construction of new heavy industry in its coastal areas, which industry is determined to be incompatible with the protection of that natural environment in those areas. While it is the declared public policy of the State to encourage the introduction of new industry into Delaware, the protection of the environment, natural beauty and recreation potential of the State is also of great concern. In order to strike the correct balance between these 2 policies, careful planning based on a thorough understanding of Delaware’s potential and the State’s needs is required. Therefore, control of industrial development other than that of heavy industry in the coastal zone of Delaware through a permit system at the state level is called for. It is further determined that offshore bulk product transfer facilities represent a significant danger of pollution to the coastal zone and generate pressure for the construction of industrial plants in the coastal zone, which construction is declared to be against public policy. For these reasons, prohibition against bulk product transfer facilities in the coastal zone is deemed imperative.

The immediate tactical driver for the bill was an attempt to build a second oil refinery in Delaware.  Shell had bought the land, designed the refinery, and survey monuments were in the ground.  The threat was immediate.  The damage being done by the existing Delaware City Refinery, one of the dirtiest in the world, was obvious.

It’s worth noting that Peterson and the leaders of the General Assembly were Republicans.  The President of the US was Richard Nixon.  The Nixon administration wanted to increase oil imports and wanted a lot of it to come up the Delaware River and be refined alongside it. So, in effect, Peterson was not only defying Delaware’s fat-cat industrial establishment, and many labor leaders, he was defying the US federal government and his fellow Republicans.

“U. S. Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans accused Peterson of being disloyal to his country.  Peterson famously replied, ‘Hell no, I’m being loyal to future generations of Americans.’” (Man and Nature in Delaware.  Williams, 2008)

There were, however, flaws in the Coastal Zone Act, like most legislation a product of compromise.  A key weakness is that the Act covers “industry” but not residential and commercial activities.  Over the years, as coastal industry has tended to contract and sprawl development expand, the CZA has increasingly failed to control many of the greatest threats to the Coastal Zone including runoff and sewage.  It has been obvious for many years that the scope of the Act needs to be expanded, but the vision and leadership to accomplish that has been lacking.

Another weakness is that regulations implementing the act we not adopted for many years, and when they were adopted they were inconsistent with the purposes of the act and tended to weaken it.  Thus, interpretation of the Act has mostly been left to Delaware’s courts, with unpredictable and increasingly bad results, as the quality of Delaware’s judiciary has declined.

But, despite these issues, the Delaware Coastal Zone Act was groundbreaking, whether one regards it as primarily a “land use” law or an “environmental” law.  It came about because a visionary governor was supported by a generation of reform-minded legislators and a relatively-active “environmental community.”  Where are the visionary governors and the generation of reform-minded legislators when we need them now??  Gov. Jack Markell is certainly not cast in that mold.

Peterson went on to serve as President of the National Audubon Society, Chaired the federal Council on Environmental Quality, and worked with various commissions, environmental organizations and projects.  He never again held elective office or a high position in the business or scientific worlds.

Peterson stayed, at least episodically, involved in environmental politics in Delaware, until his death in 2011 at the age of about 95.  He was, for example, a supporter of the Bluewater Wind project, which eventually collapsed but potentially could have been the first large offshore wind project in North America.  He usually popped up when the Coastal Zone Act was being attacked.

But in the end Russ Peterson was diminished by two things:

Advancing age.  Anyone remaining active into his mid-90s is likely to be remembered for things he or she did when no longer at the peak of their powers, and

His love-hate relationship with the chemical industry.  Perhaps Peterson never got over being pushed out of his job as Governor by DuPont.  It seemed to me that he carried deep and legitimate grievances, and of course he knew intellectually that the policies pursued by big corporate interests were destroying the planet.  On the other hand, Peterson had money, identified socially with the powers-that-be, and seemed to crave forgiveness and acceptance from the leaders of DuPont, etc.  Thus, he could and did alternate between sucking up and lashing out.  He wasn’t always reliable or predictable.  He could and did make serious mistakes and publish stupid things, such as an endorsement of a bad waste incineration company.

Russ’ key mistake was to be politically seduced by “Toxic Tom” Carper.  Carper was elected Governor in 1992, with the naive support of some Delaware enviros.  At that time, a long Coastal Zone Act negotiation between enviro types and Chamber of Commerce types had been in progress under Gov. Mike Castle and was coming to conclusion.  Carper came in with a pure “Chamber of Commerce” agenda and one of his first actions was to call in the enviros and tell them to yield to the Chamber on Coastal Zone issues.  Initially, they resisted.  So Carper went after Peterson, knowing that if Russ yielded, inevitably the mainstream enviros would go along.  Peterson fell for it.  I remember him yelling at me that Tom Carper and Chris Tolou, then Secretary of DNREC, were “great environmentalists.”  He hired a bogus “neutral facilitator” shop called the “Consensus Building Institute” to give the enviros cover for their sellout.  In the sad end, the enviros–many controlled by DuPont–wimped out and rolled over.  They signed an agreement essentially abandoning the clear language of the Coastal Zone Act in favor of “environmental indicators,” “offsets,” and other excuses for abandoning the plain meaning of the Act.  It’s been mostly downhill since.

There have been some high moments.  John Hughes, as Secretary of DNREC, denied a permit for a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Logan Township, NJ.  This he could do because at that point Delaware owns the Delaware River all the way across.  The case went to the US Supreme Court and Delaware prevailed.  At the time, the oil and gas people were saying that more gas imports were essential.  Now, of course, they are saying that gas exports are essential…..

So what’s the relevance of this to 2015?  Delaware faces more severe threats now than when Peterson was governor.  The land is sinking, the sea is rising, and much of Delaware is subject to flooding.  How is the state reacting to this? So far, with nothing but words.  Decades of pandering to business interests, without foresight or planning, have left Delaware’s economy in bad shape and our quality of life degraded.  Compare Peterson’s visionary Coastal Zone Act, which kept a Shell refinery out of Delaware, with Jack Markell’s dirty backdoor deal to reopen the Delaware City Refinery, and bring bomb trains into the state.  Delaware is the big loser.

How do we (re)open Delaware’s political system to visionary leaders?  Or at least people of intelligence and good will?  Who will step up, or be pushed forward, to run for Governor?

Alan Muller is Executive Director of Green Delaware.