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Our view: Hold rail proponents accountable for claims

The naysayers and doomsdayers can scoff and dismiss all they want, "The Northern Lights Express is going to be built, (and) we are going to reconnect Duluth, Minn., with the Twin Cities" by train, Ken Buehler, the proposed passenger rail service'...

The naysayers and doomsdayers can scoff and dismiss all they want, "The Northern Lights Express is going to be built, (and) we are going to reconnect Duluth, Minn., with the Twin Cities" by train, Ken Buehler, the proposed passenger rail service's biggest cheerleader, vowed Tuesday as the featured speaker at a Chamber-sponsored luncheon in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Not only that, Buehler said at Clyde Iron, Northern Lights Express "will transform the entire region. It will change everything. It is the train for tomorrow."

His predictions were bold and his optimism was nearly as big as the passenger rail service's price tag, which is a hefty $750 million to $775 million, much of it hoped to be paid for by the federal government. But Buehler backed up his claims, and while some will dispute him and discount his predictions, he made a pretty compelling case for NLX's transformative success.

Passenger rail service ended in Duluth in 1985 when the state Legislature pulled the plug on its annual subsidy. But the world is a far different place now, Buehler argued.

In 1985, gas cost about 85 cents a gallon. Driving and commuting are only getting more and more expensive, making rail travel more and more affordable.

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In 1985, there weren't so many cars on our highways. You know how congested and bumper-to-bumper it can be in the Twin Cities nowadays? That congestion is only expected to get worse. It's supposed to double in the next 20 years, making regular rides on the rails a more attractive option.

In 1985, there were no laptop computers or smart phones, among the tools that can make commuting by train productive today rather than the mind-numbing time-killer it was.

In 1985, Hinckley, Minn., about halfway between Duluth and Minneapolis, didn't have a casino like it does now to fuel ridership and to increase the prospects of NLX success. That casino has as many comings and goings as a city of 4.5 million people, Buehler said.

NLX has done studies showing it's a good public investment. As skeptical as many rightly are of such a claim, the federal government did a study of its own -- and came to a similar conclusion as the NLX's backers and officials. The economic impact is now forecasted to be $2 billion with as many as 14,000 new jobs expected to be created all along the corridor.

"This is an engine of economic development. This project will create jobs and increase the ... tax base," Buehler said. "And not being linked to (the Twin Cities and its growth and prosperity) is being left out."

Expect tickets to cost from about $18 to $34 one-way. And expect the ride between Duluth and Minneapolis (the station there will be near Target Field, home of Minnesota Twins baseball) to take less than 2½ hours (slice another 20 to 25 minutes off the trip by boarding in Superior).

This will happen, Buehler repeated. Environmental work already is done. Engineering work is happening now with $5 million from the federal government and $4 million from the state. Train cars will be rolling after two years of construction that can begin once a federal transportation bill is passed.

And once construction and other start-up costs are paid for -- expect that to be around 2025 -- NLX will be able to operate on its own, without any public subsidy, Buehler claimed.

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We don't have to be naysayers or doomsdayers to hold him to that -- or to any of the other bold predictions he and other supporters have been making to get this rail service up and running. If this is going to happen, every taxpayer in Minnesota has a stake -- and plenty of tax dollars -- in making sure it gets done right and doesn't become the financial burden passenger rail service used to be.

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