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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Proponents of Twin Cities-Duluth passenger rail hope DFL control will help their cause

After many years of planning, advocates for a passenger train route between Duluth and the Twin Cities are hopeful that the state will finally provide the financing the project needs to go ahead.

Republican resistance has been the main reason the Northern Lights Express train project in Minnesota has stalled in the legislature for years. Minnesota is getting closer than ever to contributing to the finances required to unlock federal assistance for the $450 million project after Democrats earned a majority in the Senate in this year’s election and established control of the Minnesota government.

Sen. Jen McEwen (DFL–Duluth): “I wouldn’t want to say that I am confident yet; I am very, very optimistic.” Because it has taken so long, many Duluth residents are looking forward to the reintroduction of passenger train service between the city and the Twin Cities.

To go from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth, the Northern Lights Express (NLX) would use 152 miles of the already existing BNSF Railway track. Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior are all on the itinerary.

Amtrak has committed to operating NLX if it is implemented, and it last ran a passenger rail service between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s.

Passenger trains would be able to detour around the freight trains by using sections of tracks constructed along the main route. Along this line, passenger trains may reach speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.

Stopping at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis would provide riders with many public transportation alternatives for getting anywhere in the Twin Cities, including the light rail to St. Paul and the airport. McEwen said that the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis would be accessible by light rail as a result of the route’s location.

McEwen said that the groups advocating for the passenger rail line had a “shovel-ready” design for the project. In the absence of confirmed financing, BNSF has said that it will not take a position on the project at this time.

Federal money for the NLX project became available when Congress enacted a $1 trillion infrastructure plan in 2021. However, Minnesota would need to contribute 20% of the total cost, which would be more than $80 million, to qualify for that cash.

This year, the DFL-controlled House approved spending $85 million on NLX, but the GOP-controlled Senate delivered a strong signal against NLX by adopting an amendment prohibiting state investment in the project.

A door may have opened for them when Democrats in Minnesota kept their Senate majority and expanded it by one member over Republicans in the November elections. Governor Tim Walz showed his support by including a request for $16 million in the project’s budget in the $2.7 billion bonding plan he submitted earlier this year. Since the 2022 session of the divided Legislature did not result in the passage of a bonding package, public infrastructure borrowing is expected to be a top priority for the 2023 session.

According to McEwen, a wide variety of organizations, from labor unions and corporations to universities and citizen advocacy boards, support NLX and will play an important role in ensuring that the necessary financing is approved.

The Northern Lights Express Alliance, an organization working to build the train link, has expressed “optimism” that the project would get the 20% of state financing necessary to release federal funds in 2023. Andrew Johnson, a member of the Minneapolis City Council and the group’s head, emphasized the fourfold return on investment for the state for every dollar invested, and he asked constituents to contact their state senators and representatives in favor of the plan.

Speaking out to lawmakers is important for “residents, retirees, students, veterans, and business people who favor transportation alternatives that are both ecologically friendly and wonderful for the economy,” he stated in a press release.

Republican senators whose districts would be traversed by the NLX line have indicated their voters are not interested in passenger rail, and opponents of the project are dubious about the demand for the service.

Sen. Jason Rarick, a Republican from Pine City, was quoted by the Duluth News Tribune earlier in 2022 as saying that he didn’t see why people would ride the train when driving would take less time.

I don’t think it will be worth the money,” he replied.

A journey on the NLX is expected to take roughly 2 and a half hours, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and might even beat driving timings in certain cases, depending on weather and traffic.

As reported by the Department of Transportation, the first year of operation might see as many as 750,000 passengers using the train, resulting in an operating cost of $18.9 million ($12 million of which would be funded by fares). Approximately $30–$35 would be the price of a ticket.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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