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Northern Lights Express passenger rail project may ride Trump's coattails

The Duluth City Council approved yet another dose of funding for the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service earlier this week amid assurances that the project, which has been years in the making, could finally be close to fruition.

The annual cost of Duluth's involvement in the initiative has fallen from about $60,000 when the push started in 2007 to less than $9,000 this year, noted Ken Buehler, chairman of the technical advisory committee for the proposed rail service — often referred to as NLX for short.

He attributed the reduced expense to recent developments, saying: "We've been successful in getting the Federal Railroad Administration to accept the Northern Lights project for intercity passenger rail as an approved project ... suitable for funding and have turned over the bulk of the work to the Minnesota Department of Transportation."

"So here's where we are, in a nutshell: We will have a shovel-ready project in June of this year. That's somewhat of a misnomer, because shovel-ready would indicate that there's actually digging and work to be done, when we're really using rail that already exists. But it will be fundable," Buehler told the Duluth City Council on Monday.

NLX is in line to seek federal funding that could cover 80 percent of the cost of the project with its estimated total price tag of between $500 million and $600 million. In turn, the state of Minnesota would be asked to cover the remaining 20 percent of the tab, said Duluth City Councilor Elissa Hansen, who also serves on the Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail Alliance Board.

As for NLX's odds of obtaining needed support, she said: "It largely depends on the transportation investment that will need to happen at a federal level. And as many of us know, President-elect Trump has talked about having an over $1 trillion investment in infrastructure and really focusing on the private-sector partners."

Hansen said NLX appears well-positioned not only because of its timing, but because it aims to use and improve 152 miles of track owned by "a major private-sector partner," namely Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

"So I'm actually feeling really, really good about it," she said. "We just have to keep everything in motion."

If Trump keeps his campaign promise, Buehler said he's convinced NLX will become a reality.

"If that happens, if that $1 trillion is spent on infrastructure, then we'll have a train. But we to act with a unified voice in order to attract that investment to the state of Minnesota," he said.

The Duluth City Council approved $8,970 in funding for the rail alliance by a 7-1 vote Monday, with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle alone in his dissent and At Large Councilor Barb Russ absent.

Fosle explained his opposition to the funding in a Friday email that said: "The city has been giving money to this project with nothing in return. We have been told over and over how the city will have a seat at the table, but with others paying much less to have the same seat."

He also voiced skepticism as to the viability of the project, saying: "I really don't see this as feasible supply-and-demand format of spending tax dollars, and as of right now it is a dream and could very well stay that way."

However, Hansen said she considers the cost of Duluth's continued participation in the NLX Alliance a wise investment.

"We share that as part of a total cost share of $69,000 with Hennepin, St. Louis and Lake counties, as well as Minneapolis, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Cambridge. So I feel like it's leveraged very well," she said.

The Superior City Council recently voted to join the NLX Alliance, too, but the counties of Isanti and Anoka have withdrawn.

The proposed rail service would operate at top speeds of 90 mph, and the trip from Duluth to Minneapolis would take about 2½ hours with stops along the way in Superior, Hinckley, Cambridge and Coon Rapids.

While that's not much of an improvement on the amount of time it typically takes to drive from Duluth to the Twin Cities, Buehler said he believes the service will attract leisure and business travelers alike.

"Remember that the train goes in both directions," he said. "Job commutes are 2½ hours of productive time on your computer or your cell phone, and not windshield time on I-35."

Hansen said NLX remains uniquely positioned.

"Rochester and St. Cloud have similar projects, but they're years behind where this project is. So, in the state, we are kind of the top rail project that serves both rural and urban areas. We definitely have a leg up," she said.

Buehler stressed the importance of seizing the opportunity at hand.

"We need to build this for economic development, because it goes beyond just tourism. If you look at the 10 years before the Great Recession ... you'll find that 90 percent of all new jobs created in Minnesota were created where? In the seven-county metro area of the Twin Cities. It is the large economic engine that is driving Minnesota and much of the Midwest. And any way that we, as a city, can connect to that energy and that job creation only benefits us," he said.