Plans for possible train stations are beginning to take shape along a proposed passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
The proposed Northern Lights Express' stops in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinkley, Superior and Duluth were presented Thursday at an open house at the Depot.
The downsized Northern Lights Express project would make four daily round trips, traveling an average of 60 mph between the Depot and Target Field in Minneapolis. The project would have an estimated price tag of between $500 million to $600 million, and if it receives federal funding, it could be operational by 2020.
The sites and designs for the stations are in the beginning stages, said Ken Buehler of the NXL Passenger Rail Alliance. The station facilities would include a building platform, ticketing, waiting area, parking and multimodal access to the station.
In Duluth, the project calls for trains to stop at a newly constructed indoor waiting area at the Depot that would replace the existing waiting room for the North Shore Scenic Railroad. In Superior, a new station would be constructed across Oakes Avenue from Kwik Trip.
A lot is still up in the air about the proposed Superior station, but it's in an open area that has the potential for some development around it to provide retail or food services, said Jason Serck, Superior's planning, economic development and port director. Having a train stop in Superior is an opportunity for tourism and development, and could bring in extra business travelers, he said.
"It's pretty exciting. It opens the door a little bit," he said.
Several station location options were researched in each city, according to Bob Manzoline, the NXL alliance's executive director. They looked at two former railroad depots in Superior, but the chosen location has good access and isn't far from downtown Superior. In Duluth, they evaluated adding stations at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and the new Duluth Transportation Center, but the Depot was the spot in the end.
"The Depot has always been the place to be," Manzoline said.
A ridership analysis estimates that 780,000 to 800,000 trips would be taken on the proposed trian annually, according to Buehler. In 1985, Amtrak's last year of operating in Duluth, 125,000 passengers traveled to Duluth from Minneapolis. The difference between then and now, Buehler said, is Duluth becoming a destination - Canal Park was a junkyard and the Lakewalk didn't exist in the 1980s. Computers also didn't exist and riding a train now means that people can get work done that they wouldn't be able to do while driving a car to Duluth.
"Two-and-a-half hours of your windshield time is productive time," he said.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, the project's lead agency, is in the process of discussing with BNSF how the passenger line could operate together with freight trains on the same tracks, in addition to track improvements, said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT's project manager.
The agency is also beginning an environmental assessment, preliminary engineering, financial plan and implementation plan, Loetterle said. That work is expected to be completed by February 2017, and then MnDOT can begin applying for federal funding. The agency is far enough along in the planning process that once funding becomes available, Loetterle expects that the project could be first in line to receive it.
"We have a good chance to do this," he said.