Northern Lights high-speed rail awaits federal OK to begin engineering phaseNow that the public has seen and commented on the environmental assessment for the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger train, project partners are waiting for governmental approval to proceed to the $8 million preliminary engineering phase of the project.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Now that the public has seen and commented on the environmental assessment for the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger train, project partners are waiting for governmental approval to proceed to the $8 million preliminary engineering phase of the project.
The Federal Railroad Administration could decide that the environmental assessment adequately addressed potential impacts of the proposed high-speed passenger line between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities. Or the administration could require NLX to revise the assessment or prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement.
“We can’t move ahead with it until FRA makes a decision,” said Bob Manzoline, executive director of the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Rail Authority, the NLX’s administrator.
Manzoline expects that the Railroad Administration will decide, perhaps as soon as June, to allow NLX to move on to preliminary engineering.
“We’re not seeing anything out there that is significant or fatal,” he said.
The NLX’s environmental impact would be minimized because it would largely use existing right-of-way. Potential impacts the environmental assessment found included the conversion of 61 acres of woods, 94 acres of brush or grass, 94 acres of wetlands and 47 acres of cropland to right-of-way; the permanent closing of up to 14 private crossings; and the temporary closing of some public crossings.
Design changes could reduce those impacts.
The NLX held a public meeting on the EA’s findings earlier this month in Cambridge. The comment period closed last week. About 30 comments from individuals were received, almost evenly split between those opposed and those supporting the project, Manzoline said. Many of those opposed live along the route.
NLX would offer 2¼-hour service between Duluth and Minneapolis, with top speeds of 110 mph. Project supporters say the project would spur $2 billion in development along the 155-mile corridor and encourage about 13,800 jobs. Partners in the project include Hennepin, Isanti, Pine and St. Louis counties, along with the cities of Minneapolis and Duluth. The alliance hopes to win federal money to pay the majority of the project’s construction costs.
Early estimates put construction and start-up costs between $900 million and $1 billion. Preliminary engineering will fine-tune those figures.
“We are going to redo the entire financial portion of this right off the bat,” looking at ridership revenue projections and operational costs, Manzoline said.
“At the same time we’ll be getting into a better look at the design of this thing,” he said.
Signals and other safety features will be a large expense.
“We want it to be a very safe operation,” Manzoline said. “We are looking at track detection. If a car was trapped at an intersection, the train itself would know that and stop in time.”
Federal and state money will pay for the $8 million of preliminary engineering, which will take about 24 months to complete. The results will give authorities a good idea of what the project would actually cost to undertake.
The project has its detractors and doubters. Citing uncertainties over future costs and subsidies, the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority pulled out of the alliance last year.