Breakthrough funding for the proposed $550-million passenger rail line between the Twin Ports and Minneapolis will have to wait for at least another year after the Minnesota Legislature last week failed to address the project.
Funding for the Northern Lights Express passenger rail line ultimately landed in a proposed off-year bonding bill. The bill was never taken up in a special session which yielded a bipartisan state budget. None of the budget's fine print was aimed at Northern Lights Express.
The lack of state funding means there will be no federal grant submissions this year. Federal funding is anticipated to pay for the majority of the project on an 80-20 scale, but committed state dollars are a requirement in order to unlock federal funds.
Still, project leaders told the News Tribune they were undeterred by the outcome.
“It’s not totally unexpected,” Bob Manzoline said. “The good news is that there were things to get excited about — the governor included us in his budget, along with a house bill — so we’re very encouraged.”
Manzoline is executive director for the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority, which will regroup Wednesday at its regular meeting at the Depot in Duluth.
The rail authority is expected to approve a bonding request for 2020 in the neighborhood of $4 million to $6 million. Requests for local government entities are due June 14.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation could include some larger figures in its bonding request due in August, sources said. This year, different bills in the legislature included $76.3 million for rail crossing improvements along the route, $17.5 million to improve the Grassy Point Swing Bridge connecting Duluth and Superior over the St. Louis River, and $55.1 million for what is called the Third Mainline Project. The “Third Main” project would create a dedicated passenger line between the Twin Cities and Chicago, alleviating some of the congestion on two existing lines shared by freight and the Northstar Line commuter train. Northstar would add more trains per day to Chicago, and the proposed NLX would ultimately get a faster run into downtown Minneapolis at Target Field Station.
“It’s already a choke point for BNSF (Railway),” Ken Buehler said. “Adding a third line would take Northstar and NLX off BNSF mainline and improve the reliability and timelines.”
Buehler is the technology chair of the Northern Lights Passenger Rail Alliance made up of representatives of proposed stops along the route, which include Hinckley, Cambridge and Coon Rapids to go with Duluth, Superior and Minneapolis.
Buehler said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, has encouraged Northern Lights Express proponents to resubmit their bonding requests. Murphy is chair of the Capital Investment Division in the Minnesota House of Representatives, meaning she has oversight over bonding.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of pressure to get a bonding bill done and it’s probably going to be larger (than 2018’s $1.5 billion),” Buehler said. “We think our chances are much better than what we were going at this year.”
The Northern Lights Express is expected to be operated by Amtrak using 152 miles of BNSF track. The passenger train is projected to reach speeds up to 90 mph.
When asked why advocates of the Northern Lights Rail have seemed to avoid getting discouraged through what has been a years-long process characterized by ups and downs, Manzoline thought for a moment before answering.
“Persistence, dedication to the project,” he said. “We think it’s a good project.”