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Our view: Study shows station at casino significant in making passenger train self-sufficient

Is there a controversy in the making over where to put stations on the nascent Minneapolis-to-Duluth passenger rail line? Given the way northern Minnesota projects go, at first glance it may seem like there is. In Hinckley, the existing freight t...

Is there a controversy in the making over where to put stations on the nascent Minneapolis-to-Duluth passenger rail line?

Given the way northern Minnesota projects go, at first glance it may seem like there is. In Hinckley, the existing freight tracks the train would use run right through downtown, a convenient spot for Minneapolis-bound commuters. But a destination for thousands of potential Twin Cities riders is the Grand Casino Hinckley, 2½ miles away.

Does that pit the two types of riders and the town and casino against each other?

Not necessarily, said Roger Nelson, a Pine County commissioner representing Hinckley. In fact, as he and other members of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance surmised yesterday, building a spur to the casino could be the key to getting the entire line built.

"There's no question that the economics would favor the casino line," Nelson said after a presentation of a feasibility study conducted by Transportation Economics & Management Systems of Frederick, Md. But, Nelson added: "The biggest hurdle we have to get over is there going to be a line or not?"

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The casino station makes a strong argument for it, according to the study titled "Restoration of Intercity Passenger Rail Service Comprehensive Feasibility Study and Business Plan."

We like the business plan part.

And so does U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, the House Transportation chairman, who told train backers visiting his Washington office recently that any plan would have to be self-sufficient after the initial investment.

A casino station would help significantly, bringing in about $47 million annually versus operating costs of $30 million by 2022. That's compared to revenue of about $38 million against $28 million in expenses without a casino stop. The entire line would pump $1.1 billion into communities along the rail corridor, the study showed, and $1.8 billion with the casino option.

A station at the casino may actually better address the needs of Hinckley commuters, with more land available for parking than at the downtown tracks. And, the study showed, the spur could be extended to create a stop at Sandstone.

While all that sounds great in a Power Point, train tracks don't grow in corn fields. Constructing the spur could add another $40 million to the project, bringing it to nearly $400 million. That's quadruple the amount first estimated when the line was proposed with two trains running daily at 79 mph.

Yet the original scenario would see the train barely rivaling a trip by car, fewer riders and an operational deficit in perpetuity. With the speed increased to 110 mph, ridership and revenue would grow exponentially, the study showed, and the train ride would match or beat the trip by car. Even without the casino station, the 110 mph train would operate in the black, though less so.

Rail alliance members haven't settled on a final plan, and neither have the various constituencies of Hinckley.

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"In Pine County, we are supportive of the overall project," Nelson said. "We don't want to get into 'Is it going to stop in Hinckley? Is it going to stop at the casino? Is it going to stop in Sandstone, or two out of the three?' "

That's prudent. And for now, the issue isn't stopping the train but getting it going. The sooner it does, the sooner it will begin to pay off.

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