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2017’s biggest hurdle for proposed Northern Lights Express: federal funding

A train operated by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific crosses the Grassy Point Bridge as it heads from Duluth to Superior in 2010. The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would use the bridge. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
The lights of Spirit Mountain shine beyond the Grassy Point railroad bridge earlier this month. The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would use the bridge on its route linking the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

The prospect of a high-speed passenger rail line linking the Twin Ports and Twin Cities dates back to the Great Recession, when it emerged as a hazy notion met by plenty of skeptics.

Now nearly a decade later, and thanks to a dedicated assemblage of people ticking off one one detail after another in anonymity, the prospect of a 90-mph train whistling into a stop in downtown Superior before bending across the Grassy Point Bridge and heading to the Duluth Depot is as close as it's ever been.

"I actually think this is the best year to start having the conversation," said Duluth City Councilor Elissa Hansen, who has emerged in the past year as a key figure for the proposed Northern Lights Express. "We are going to be ready by the end of June, when we'll be done with all the environmentals. It runs on track that already exists, and that we're only going to improve and make safer. We are positioned better than any rail project in Minnesota and compared to some other national ones as well. My hope is that the federal government sees this as a true public-private partnership."

Hansen is the chair of the Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail Alliance. She was approved in a January vote to replace retired St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar, a strong advocate of multimodal transportation who'd sat atop the NLX board since its inception.

Sitting next to Hansen on the board is vice chair Jason Serck — the economic development, planning and port director for Superior. As neighboring advocates for a rail system that will feature stops in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and the Twin Ports, they have assumed responsibility for bringing the project home.

"We are on the same page," Serck said of Hansen. "Our goal is the same: let's work on getting this thing built. We are getting as close to shovel-ready as possible. It's a matter of dollars."

That means securing federal funding expected to cover 80 percent of the total project development cost, estimated at between $500 million and $600 million. Environmental assessments of the 152 miles of BNSF Railway track will be completed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in June, a milestone that makes the project eligible for funding. The NLX avoided needing more rigorous environmental impact statements because the track already exists and is put to use daily by BNSF freight trains.

"We could run 90 mph right now on the track structure itself," said Frank Loetterle, project manager for MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office in St. Paul. "It is in very good shape."

All things being favorable would put the NLX in operation by 2020, organizers say. But for the dream to further materialize, big developments still need to unfold.

When the federal government's $305 billion Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, it included a funding mechanism for rail lines in addition to primary projects such as bridges and highways.

"But there's no money in it," Loetterle said of the FAST Act's funding arm for rail. "I like to tell people they created a bucket but didn't put anything in it."

Funding then will have to come from a special appropriation of some kind within Congress. Up to now, the NLX has received strong support from Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, who have worked in the past to secure millions in planning dollars for the project. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, is also revealing himself to be something more than a vocal supporter. Nolan encouraged the NLX group to schedule a trip to Washington, D.C., and NLX Alliance members began planning one at one of its committee meetings Wednesday.

"He is fast becoming our champion," said Ken Buehler, Duluth Depot executive director and chairman of the NLX's technical advisory committee.

State-appropriated funding is expected to supplement the federal dollars in a model that already exists in the transportation realm.

"The NLX is to rail as interstate is to roads — it's inter-city connectivity and it should not be local communities that pay for it," Loetterle said. "It should be paid for by the federal and state governments in a 80-20 or 90-10 ratio, and we've been taking that approach from the beginning."

Once in operation, fares would cover about 70 percent of operating costs, and some amount of operational subsidy will be required going forward, Loetterle explained. How Wisconsin, for the way the NLX jogs across state lines into Superior, and the priorities of the White House administration factor into the funding equation are wild-card components at this point, say organizers.

"We're working on details about how much Wisconsin is going to be involved," Serck said.

The NLX's half-a-billion-dollar start-up cost estimate includes three passenger train sets — two for operation and one on standby. But the NLX Alliance also plans to contract with an existing carrier that could conceivably provide that infrastructure. Loetterle said the expectation is that Amtrak will be the operator. Because of remaining variables such as that, Loetterle said he expects costs will come into sharper focus in the coming year.

Other key details already are locked in.

Because the passenger train would run 50 mph faster than BNSF trains, NLX trains would catch up with and be required to pass freight trains in operation. Such maneuvering will require the lengthening and build-out of four or five sidings along the rail route that will allow freight trains to pull into and out of at something close to full speed.

Also, because passengers trains would approach railroad crossings so much faster than freight trains, crossings along the route are scheduled to be upgraded with gates and flashing lights. There are 117 crossings in total between Duluth and Minneapolis, and those without gates and lights will each require between $250,000 and $1 million worth of upgrades.

The NLX Alliance has said it expects up to 750,000 total trips on the rail service each year to begin with — that includes riders who hop on or off in Hinckley, Cambridge or some other stop and don't travel the full length of the route. The alliance's analysis shows those numbers climbing to 1 million trips by 2040. Rough estimates for one-way ticket fares of $28 to $36 from the Twin Ports to the Twin Cities were based on a feasibility study.

It's a price Hansen would gladly pay. As a private business owner in addition to being the person tasked with bringing the project to fruition, Hansen gives NLX its strongest kind of advocate — one who would readily use the project she's getting ready to pitch for dollars.

"I commute back and forth to the Twin Cities on a regular basis as do many of my counterparts," she said. "I would absolutely, one million percent, pay for that and be able to work while I'm commuting."

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