Northern Lights Express: Where tax dollars go to dieBudgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing takes a look at the highly divisive Northern Lights Express, a high-speed passenger rail route between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities.
By: Virgil Swing, Budgeteer News
The planned Northern Lights Express (a bad idea that just won’t quit) and its current state of affairs is reminiscent of when Duluth had passenger rail service for about 10 years, ending in 1985. In each case, a powerful legislator kept alive a project that made no economic sense.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the Duluth-to-Twin Cities Amtrak train was kept on life support by the late Rep. Willard Munger, who regularly pushed subsidies through the Minnesota Legislature.
Munger deserves great credit as a pioneer environmentalist, and the pedestrian-bike trail named after him is a great asset to the Duluth area.
But Duluth’s rail passenger service was a waste of taxpayer money. Munger chaired the House Natural Resources Committee, but his considerable clout helped him keep Amtrak going when it should have died.
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, so projects like new high-speed passenger rail service are a logical subject of his panel. But that doesn’t keep the proposed Northern Lights Express train between the Twin Cities and Duluth from being another bad idea.
Yet Oberstar recently persuaded the House to put another $3 million for it in an appropriations bill; that money is on top of lots of other government cash spent on a train that will never break even.
As I’ve said in earlier columns, I’m a big fan of passenger rail — where it makes sense. I rode trains when living in New York in the 1960s, a city that could not survive without passenger rail.
I also used passenger trains during a 2009 visit to New York and will travel on Amtrak from St. Paul to Seattle next month.
So I’m no passenger rail basher.
But governments in 2010 can’t afford to pour money down ratholes (and shouldn’t, of course, even in flush times), and too much federal, state and Duluth money has gone down the Northern Lights rathole.
Even its supporters admit the train must compete with Duluth-to-Minneapolis car travel to make sense. When backers were saying it would travel up to 110 miles an hour, it was unrealistic to think it would beat a car’s time on I-35, as the “express” route will actually make several stops. Now that the likely top speed has been trimmed to 79 to 90 miles an hour, it’s even less likely to wean many travelers from cars.
And the regional Passenger Rail Alliance backing the train can’t even say which route it will travel or what it will cost to get tracks in shape for even a 90 mph train.
Yet the spending goes on.
Backers say a passenger train will appeal because it gives riders more productive time than car travel. That’s certainly true for trains filled with commuters. But even at the too-optimistic two hours (or more) for the trip, the Northern Lights Express would draw few people who live in Duluth and work in Minneapolis (and why would anyone use it the opposite way?), so tourists will account for most passengers.
And these questions are on top of the big disparity in projected passenger numbers between regional and state transportation officials. The idea of rail passenger service sharing tracks with freight trains, as now envisioned, has also been called a big mistake by knowledgeable rail supporters.
Another big hurdle facing Northern Lights is that the limited amount of federal subsidies for high-speed rail won’t go to such a lightly traveled route when competitors include heavily populated areas on the East and West coasts, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, Sacramento and Las Vegas.
Even as doubts grow, some backers will no doubt cite the already large amount of money spent on the project as a reason to go ahead.
But that makes as much economic sense as the feverish Las Vegas gambler who keeps tossing chips on the blackjack table because he’s down so much.
The U.S. Senate still hasn’t approved a bill with the latest $3 million subsidy. Hopefully Minnesota’s senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken — junior legislators who each have been alive about as long as Oberstar and Munger served in legislative office — will be able to persuade fellow lawmakers to not toss this good money after bad earlier appropriations.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing can be reached at email@example.com.