VIDEO: 'Local Motives' Examines the Politics of Passenger Rail in America

A new documentary film entitled, "Local Motives", by young movie-maker and Macalester College student, James Christenson, takes an in depth, balanced look at the motivations that drive the pursuit of high-speed, commuter, and light rail lines, and the process of decision-making that dictates their final alignments. Driven by local economic development plans, many local towns strive to have stations, while other neighborhoods have been unwilling bisected at the expense of local residents and community cohesion.

"Whether it is a state, a county, a city, or local business interest," Christenson writes about the film on his website, "everyone wants a rail route for fear that they will fade into irrelevancy if their territory is not connected to the emerging transportation network. And they will do [whatever it takes to get connected] at whatever the cost."

Local Motives

Local Motives from James Christenson on Vimeo.

Produced by James Christenson and Clay Steinman

(55 minutes, 9 seconds)

Christenson writes about the film on his website, "The movie simultaneously takes its viewers on a journey throughout the state of Minnesota, telling the history and tragedies of its major cities and rural outposts. It also engages the most pressing of political issues that America faces today - from the Great Recession to the maintenance of the country's infrastructure, from the predominance of business interests to the federal government's role as economic stimulator and regulator, and from the plight of Main Street to the continued political struggles of urban minorities. In the end, Local Motives tells us something about the American political tradition and the way elites plan the future of the country."

Christenson, the film's writer, director, photographer, editor, and producer, began work on the film in the summer of 2010 and spent five months editing. The filmmaker interviewed 40 people for the movie, including influential politicians, such as former U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar, the longtime chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, who at the time of the interview was one of the most powerful politicians in Washington.

The film is divided into four chapters that are skillfully woven together through these interviews:

The first chapter is about the plight of Staples, MN, a small town in Northern Minnesota, which was devastated after the railroad that powered the town for decades, Northern Pacific, left the city three decades ago.

The second chapter is about the federal high-speed rail program and the two potential high-speed rail alignments between Chicago, IL and Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. One route would travel adjacent to the existing Amtrak corridor, often called the River Route because it follows the Mississippi River from St. Paul to La Crosse, WI, and then on to Milwaukee, WI. This rail alignment could be upgraded, revitalizing Main Streets all along the route, and these upgrades could be made more easily and quickly compared to the construction of a brand new route. Critics of the River Route argue that it could not be upgraded to support true high-speed rail because of the lack of potential ridership and other track limitations.

The second potential high-speed rail alignment would involve the construction of brand new tracks south from St. Paul to Rochester, MN and then directly east on to La Crosse, WI. The advantage of this route is that Rochester is home to the Mayo Clinic, which according to their website, is the largest integrated medical center in the world with over 32,000 physicians, scientists, residents, fellows, students, and staff, and treating over 350,000 patients each year. This route would take longer to construct, but would likely be able to support true high-speed rail service.

The third chapter is about the Northern Lights Express rail, a proposed commuter rail service between Duluth, MN and Minneapolis/St. Paul. This chapter examines how former U.S. Congressman Oberstar, whose district included Duluth, was successful at obtaining funds for the Northern Lights Express project, connecting a small town on Lake Superior to the Twin Cities, at the expense of other rail projects that may be a more effective use of scarce federal rail funds.

The fourth chapter is about a light rail transit project connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul along University Avenue, the largest infrastructure project ever built in the state of Minnesota. Many of the decisions regarding the location of stations have been highly controversial and the film examines some of the efforts by transit advocates to include stations in underserved neighborhoods. This chapter also tells the emotional story of a freeway that was built between the Twin Cities in the 1960s. Construction destroyed huge swaths of Rondo, a predominantly African American neighborhood in St. Paul, tearing the tight-knit community apart and displacing thousands of residents.

For more information, visit the movie's website: