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$5 million advances Northern Lights Express effort

The Northern Lights Express will receive a $5 million federal grant for engineering and environmental work for the proposed rail line between Duluth and Minneapolis.

The Northern Lights Express will receive a $5 million federal grant for engineering and environmental work for the proposed rail line between Duluth and Minneapolis.

The money was part of a $2 billion package in high-speed rail awards granted by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday, with winners chosen among 100 different applicants from 24 states. It follows previous federal grants of $500,000 in fiscal year 2010 and $3 million in 2011.

"Obviously we're very pleased to get another amount of money to keep us going," said St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar, co-chairman of the NLX Passenger Rail Alliance Board.

Raukar said the $5 million in federal money will allow the NLX to leverage an additional $4.5 million from an existing state allocation.

It will take another eight to 10 months to complete preliminary engineering and environmental work, Northern Lights Express coordinator Bob Manzoline said. Detailed engineering work could require another 18 months and $65 million to complete.

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Construction of the proposed 155-mile rail line would cost anywhere from $575 million to $820 million. If ever built, the line could be eligible for federal funding that would cover about 80 percent of the costs.

Whether the project can receive the needed political support is uncertain. The Anoka County Board voted 5-2 on Jan. 25 to remove bonding for the Northern Lights Express from the county's list of legislative priorities this session. In March a Minnesota House committee voted to call back $59 million -- including $9 million for Northern Lights -- that previous legislatures had approved. That same month the Duluth City Council defeated a resolution to withhold city support for the project.

The $2 billion became available when Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled plans for a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa. A large part of the redistributed money -- almost $800 million -- will go to improve rail service in the crowded Northeast, upgrading train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on critical segments.

Former Rep. Jim Oberstar, now a fellow at the Humphrey Institute Center for Transportation Studies, said the $5 million for the Northern Lights Express will push the project forward toward full funding. He said Florida's loss is Minnesota's gain.

"This is great news. I encouraged Gov. Mark Dayton to pursue this funding for a project that's going to reconnect the Twin Ports and Twin Cities with passenger rail service," Oberstar told the News Tribune.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
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