Now that Duluth-Twin Cities passenger rail has state funding, what's next?
It could be up to a year or two before final federal funding is secured, and then construction can begin. That is projected to take three years.
ST. PAUL — After decades of advocacy at the capitol, a long-awaited passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities has secured state funding and could enter service later in the 2020s.
Minnesota’s new transportation budget signed into law by the governor on Wednesday, May 24, has $194.7 million to start up Northern Lights Express rail, or NLX. It’s a huge step forward for the project, but much work still lies ahead, according to the Department of Transportation and rail advocacy group NLX Alliance.
“We are so excited about this funding,” said Minneapolis City Council Member and NLX Alliance President Andrew Johnson. “Folks should be able to, hopefully, buy their tickets in about four to five years."
It could be up to a year or two before final federal funding is secured, and then construction can begin, Johnson explained. Construction is projected to take three years.
The next step is for the transportation department to apply for federal funding available through the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021. Supporters are optimistic about getting federal funding.
“Our contacts in the federal government in the Federal Rail Administration have made favorable comments about Northern Lights Express,” said Johnson. “Our understanding is it is a top priority project nationally.”
Groups backing the passenger rail line already have a plan for the project they call “shovel-ready,” and they say construction will create about 3,000 jobs.
This is such a relatively easy, clean build-out. It's not like more complicated projects.
Under the current plan, 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 and Hinckley in Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.
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. Right now there would be four round trips each day.
Transportation officials estimate up to 750,000 people will ride the train in the first year of service and could grow to about 1 million in the following years. MnDOT estimates the fare would be about $30-$35 for a one-way ticket.
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. Supporters also say the route will provide access to the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis via light rail.
Estimates have placed the price tag of NLX at $450 million, though more recent estimates have placed the cost closer to $600 million. Minnesota would only have to chip in 20% of the total, as the federal government would pay $4 for every $1 from the state.
At the 4-1 federal match, $194 million in state funds would give the project nearly $1 billion.
While earlier bills called for about $100 million to unlock the federal match, Johnson said the $194.7 million in state money covers the cost of new trains. Minnesota buying trains could save the state money in the long run and create a better rider experience that would attract more passengers, he said.
Supporters of NLX were enthusiastic this year about the odds for the proposed rail line after the DFL won control of all three branches of state government in November. For years, the proposal never gained any traction in the divided Legislature, where Republicans opposed the project.
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.
However, it’s still unclear whether BNSF will support NLX. In the past, the railway said it would not take a stance on the project until funding is secured, and remained noncommittal Thursday when asked if it now had a position.
“BNSF uses long-standing passenger principles to evaluate potential passenger projects on our property,” spokesperson Lydia Underdahl said. “We evaluate projects for safety and impacts to our freight rail capacity.”
Republican lawmakers, including those along the route, question if the level of ridership and length of the trip justifies the expense. The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates a trip on the NLX would take about 2 1/2 hours and could possibly outperform drive times depending on weather and traffic.
There are also questions about whether the price tag will continue to grow after the project has started. Already the estimated cost increased as the bill got closer to reaching the finish line.
Some have pointed to the runaway cost of other Minnesota rail projects such as Southwest Light Rail, a Twin Cities transit project an audit found is four years behind schedule and around $800 million over its initial two-year budget.
But Johnson said the projects can not be compared because Southwest Light rail is a completely new rail line through an urban environment and the NLX project involves the construction of new stations, railroad crossings and short segments of bypass rail.
“This is such a relatively easy, clean build-out,” Johnson said. “It's not like more complicated projects.”
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