Our view: Consider all the facts on trains
They've been working so hard to bring passenger trains back to Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota. But has the dogged pursuit of an expected economic boon and an environmental benefit that comes from having more people riding on rails rather than ...
They've been working so hard to bring passenger trains back to Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota.
But has the dogged pursuit of an expected economic boon and an environmental benefit that comes from having more people riding on rails rather than driving on highways caused officials and supporters of Northern Lights Express to turn a blind eye?
Just how closely have they been considering all the information and expert opinions coming their way?
The train enthusiasts certainly blustered this summer when a state study predicted about
100,000 annual rail riders between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities by the year 2030. NLX's own study called for nearly three times more (274,000) riders a year, each of them buying tickets and assuring the rail line's financial future.
The state study "was very incomplete" and used "inaccurate information," John Ongaro, intergovernmental relations director for St. Louis County, was quick to charge.
County Commissioner Steve Raukar, chairman of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, added that the state study didn't account for an expected increase in gas prices, the continuing deterioration of Interstate 35, the opportunity for train rides to improve personal productivity or other factors. "There are a lot of things to look at," Raukar said. "I think the state ... has been premature in its findings."
Train supporters protested anew when state officials placed the cost of creating the high-speed train at nearly $1 billion. NLX's own estimate was $615 million. And even though that was an increase from $360 million just a year ago, it was still a far cry from the $1 billion mark.
The state's estimate was "exaggerated," "misleading," and the "highest possible cost," U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has countered in a letter to the News Tribune, published on today's page. "The figure over-inflates track construction costs ... [and] assumes that twice as many rail cars and engines will be purchased," Oberstar wrote. "The price of signals is inflated [and the state's estimate] calls for five unnecessary bridge replacements."
Perhaps Oberstar is right. Perhaps the cost to build and get running the Northern Lights Express line will be closer to $615 million than
$1 billion. Taxpayers certainly want him to be right, kind of need him to be.
And maybe the state ridership study was "incomplete," based on "inaccurate information" and "premature," as NLX officials claimed this summer. The success of the train depends on more riders, not fewer.
It seems entirely plausible state officials and train opponents are erring too much on the side of caution while NLX supporters are being unrealistically optimistic.
"The numbers may never agree," Dave Christianson, a project manager for the state Department of Transportation, told the News Tribune Opinion page in August. "But it's safe to say there will be a middle ground."
And that middle ground is where rail enthusiasts, state transportation officials, lawmakers and others need to find agreement. Taxpayers footing the bills demand the planning done at the outset be based on dependable and accurate numbers.
Attendance at Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium never came close to some of the projections that were used to sell that project. The years of money troubles, public support and taxpayer outrage that followed are ripe with lessons and warnings for folks now launching Northern Lights Express.
If rail officials expend the same amount of energy seriously considering and incorporating into their plans all the studies and expert opinions as they've spent debunking numbers that don't support their endeavor, there's little doubt high-speed passenger trains will again become a fixture in Northeastern Minnesota.