Monday, September 15, 2008

Margin Notes: More on Minnesota

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - Today, I present some final thoughts from Minnesota.

One of the United States Senate races to watch appears to be the one in Minnesota. The latest poll shows Republican incumbent Norm Coleman leading Democrat Al Franken, but most significantly Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley surging to 13% support, seemingly taking away votes from each of the major party candidates, both of whom lost support since the last poll. If yard signs mean anything, Franken appears poised to sweep the Twin Cities while in the rural areas I saw almost no Franken signs and not that many Coleman signs. Nowhere did I see a Barkley sign. In a state that once elected Jesse Ventura governor (I saw his portrait in the state capitol), though, Barkley may indeed have a significant impact on the race.

The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River is set to re-open at 05:00 on Thursday. The bridge collapsed in June 2007, so the fact that it has been replaced in not much more than a year, well ahead of the original schedule, is quite a feat. The bridge collapsed about a week after my last visit to the Twin Cities, so one wonders what will happen the next time I visit.

In contrast, and returning to my theme of not understanding the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the speed limit on I-35E through much of St. Paul is 45 miles per hour. There must be an engineering reason for this low limit, but I couldn't discern it. I also find it strange that this main artery is only two lanes in each direction north of the Mississippi. Needless to say, it was stop-and-go at rush hour, but I was surprised to find that rush hour seemed to end about 18:30 on Friday, and I didn't encounter any significant traffic driving around at mid-day on Monday. Most US and Canadian cities would be envious.

An interesting feature of parks in the Twin Cities seems to be facilities for canines. While walking around St. Paul on Friday, I noted that next to each drinking fountain for humans was a bowl at ground level for dogs. In some cases, it was integrated into the human unit by the city while in others it was just a plastic dish seemingly put there by local residents. I thought maybe this was a function of walking through relatively affluent neighborhoods, but I saw the same thing at Minnehaha Falls Park today, so it appears to be more universal.

The idea that AM radio is dying, that its listeners are at least 45 years old and that the new Portable People Meter device used by Arbitron is making the trend more obvious, is a topic I will likely return to in the future. For now, suffice to say WCCO in Minneapolis may exemplify the trend. I found it refreshing to find Mondale and Jones on 830 AM when I landed on Friday, but was surprised to find their bumper music was all songs from the 1960's and 1970's. I thought maybe the old music was specific to that show, but tuning in later in the day found the same trend. Is WCCO actually trying to attract an older demographic? I was certainly left to wonder. Meanwhile, syndicated conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were on 100.3 FM, KTLK (K-Talk)--it was rather nice to hear Rush in FM clarity.

The reason for my trip to Minnesota was to chase and ride behind the last runs of former Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261 before it goes out of service for what is expected to be at least a year for a 15-year boiler overhaul. While there are other large steam locomotives operating occasionally on this continent, including former Santa Fe #3751 between Los Angeles and San Diego next weekend, the 261 is the only coal burner in the group--former Southern Pacific #4449, former Spokane, Portland and Seattle #700, and Union Pacific #844 and #3985, for example, all burn oil. I intentionally stood on a highway overpass above the tracks near La Crescent on Saturday just to experience the exhaust filled with coal cinders pouring up toward me, and spent significant time in the vestibules on Sunday, where one did not even need to stick one's head out the window to experience the joys of coal cinders. Sure, it's dirty (I had to wash my hair thoroughly and even noticed when blowing my nose) and one shouldn't wear nice clothes, but where else can one experience that on a mainline railroad today? It's something everyone should do at least once. I will certainly be looking forward to the 261's return to the mainlines.

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