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Passenger rail service would boost Duluth's economy

The Minnesota Legislature is reviewing a feasibility study it authorized in the past session, which examines the possibility of restoring passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

The Minnesota Legislature is reviewing a feasibility study it authorized in the past session, which examines the possibility of restoring passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.
The recently completed report suggests there are three to four scenarios for potential restoration. Although it was necessary to provide narration examining several aspects of restoration, final conclusions are explicit; speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?
Since this is an opinion column, I'll take the liberty of oversimplifying this complex initiative based on my experience. First, I believe this to be a truly worthwhile, long-term project for the state, region and city. Having said that, I also sense there is a long ribbon of track ahead before it becomes reality.
Things to consider as part of the process include: capital and operating costs, potential ridership and revenues, economic returns and funding sources. Examples of important, but less immediately, obvious issues include examining the potential alternative to concrete transportation systems, environmental aspects and overall economic and tax growth opportunities.
What are the chances of actually seeing passenger trains running in the next few years?
I think, given Gov. Jesse Ventura's keen interest and support of light rail transportation, the concept actually has a fighting chance. With big investment, state supported light rail systems already in the works for Minneapolis and St. Paul, it's feasible to tie in Minnesota's second largest metro, Duluth. But there's going to have to be a lot of political negotiation and federal support along the way.
Two of the potential scenarios outline track and equipment upgrades, providing service at speeds slower than automobile transportation. I just don't think it's feasible to invest in such a system unless it's going to be at least as time effective as traveling Interstate 35 by car.
A third scenario matches I-35 driving times. Scenario III requires an initial capital investment of $85 million plus annual subsidies, depending on ridership. Much faster service is possible, but with a doubling of capital costs, this high level technology unfortunately isn't even being considered today.
To simply view the short-term costs of rail passenger service in a vacuum does nothing to articulate the long-term sensibility of such an initiative. It is expensive and requires subsidies.
Depending on the type, rail service would be a tremendous boost for the Duluth economy, forever enhancing the region's economic landscape. Hundreds of millions of dollars in joint development opportunities and more than 1,000 new jobs, according to research. Plus, a cleaner environment and tax growth.
It's time to take a hard look at the merits of multimodal transportation. Tourism numbers in Duluth have more than doubled since Amtrak discontinued service in 1985. There has been the establishment of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MRRI), a multi-state effort which considers the feasibility of a rail system hubbed in Chicago. And Minneapolis-St. Paul population growth has been very significant.
Duluth's highest percentage growth segment of tourism is international visitors. It's still a small part of our overall market, but one of the most important aspects of building international visitation is reducing transportation barriers.
It seems we have all the critical elements within reach for state of the art, accessible, multimodal transportation. If we play our cards right, Duluth is poised to be a magical gateway to the region.
Most Duluthians seem to be honing in on the vision for Bayfront to include a world-class festival park, visitor center and arboretum -- could the tremendous benefits of restoring efficient passenger rail service to and from the Twin Cities also be something everyone agrees upon? Only time will tell.

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