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Duluth-Minneapolis passenger rail backers hopeful DFL will deliver funding

For years, the Northern Lights Express rail project has failed to gain traction in the Minnesota Legislature, largely due to GOP opposition.

A train engine passes over a swing bridge in winter during the twilight hour, with a lit ski hill visible behind it
The lights of Spirit Mountain shine beyond the Grassy Point railroad bridge. The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would use the bridge on its route linking the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — Supporters of a proposed passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities are optimistic the project could soon receive the state funding needed to move forward after years of planning.

For years, the Northern Lights Express rail project has failed to gain traction in the Minnesota Legislature, largely due to GOP opposition. But after Democrats won a majority in the Senate in this year’s election and secured control of Minnesota government, the state is closer than ever to chipping in funds needed to unlock federal backing for the $450 million project.

“I wouldn't want to say that I am confident yet; I am very, very hopeful,” said Sen. Jen McEwen, Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Duluth. “There's a lot of people who are eager to see passenger rail return to Duluth and connecting Duluth to the Twin Cities again, and it's been such a long time coming.”

The Northern Lights Express, or NLX, would use 152 miles of existing BNSF Railway track and connect Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth. Stops are planned in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior.

Amtrak last operated a passenger rail route between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s, and has agreed to run NLX if it moves forward.

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Sections of track would be built alongside the main route so the passenger trains could move out of the way as freight trains move through. Passenger trains would travel about 90 mph along the route.

Northern Lights Express rail line
The Northern Lights Express is a proposed, 155-mile high-speed passenger train to run along existing lines from Duluth to Superior and on to Minneapolis.
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The Target Field stop in downtown Minneapolis would provide close access to public transit options to reach destinations across the Twin Cities, including light rail connections to downtown St. Paul and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. McEwen pointed out that the route will also provide access to the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis via light rail.

Groups backing the passenger rail line already have a plan for the project which is “shovel-ready” McEwen said. BNSF said it would not take an official stance on the project until funding is secured.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 opened the door for federal funding for the NLX project. But to gain access to that funding, Minnesota would have to chip in 20% off the price tag — more than $80 million.

The DFL-controlled House passed a bill to provide $85 million in funding earlier this year, but the Republican-controlled Senate sent a strong statement against NLX by passing an amendment blocking the state from spending on the project.

But Minnesota Democrats maintained their majority in the House this November and gained a one-seat majority over Republicans in the Senate, opening a possible path. Gov. Tim Walz also signaled support when he asked for $16 million for the project in his $2.7 billion bonding proposal earlier this year. The split Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill in 2022, and borrowing for public infrastructure projects is likely to be a priority during the 2023 session.

Jen McEwen.jpg
Jen McEwen

McEwen said groups including labor unions, businesses, colleges and universities, and citizen advocacy boards all back the project and will be a key part of getting funding for NLX passed.

Northern Lights Express Alliance, a coalition of groups pushing for the rail connection, said it is “optimistic” the project will get the 20% statewide funding needed to unlock federal dollars in 2023. The group’s chair, Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis city councilman, pointed out that the state will get four more dollars for every dollar put toward the project, and urged members of the public to reach out to their senators and representatives to voice their support.

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“Residents, seniors, students, veterans and business people who support transportation choices that are both environmentally sustainable and great for the economy can help by speaking to their legislators,” he said in a news release.

Opponents of the NLX line are skeptical of demand for the service and Republican senators representing the districts along the proposed route have said their constituents are not interested in passenger rail.

Pine City Republican Sen. Jason Rarick told the Duluth News Tribune earlier in 2022 that he didn’t see why anyone would use the train as it would typically take longer than traveling by highway.

Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth: "People want choices. They don’t want to be tied down to having to use their cars, with no other options.”

“I don’t see that the cost is going to be worth the usage,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates a trip on the NLX would take about 2 ½ hours and could possibly outperform drive times depending on weather and traffic.

Transportation officials estimate up to 750,000 people will ride the train in the first year of service at an estimated annual operating cost of $18.9 million, $12 million of which would be covered by rider fares. Tickets would be about $30-$35.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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