Spending cuts threaten prospects for second Chicago-Twin Cities passenger train

RELATED TOPICS: PASSENGER | OPERATIONS | MIDWEST | CHICAGO
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — A plan by the Minnesota legislature to defund the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Passenger Rail Office could threaten plans to establish a second passenger train on the Chicago–Twin Cities route. The office has an annual funding request of $900,000, but the Republican-controlled Minnesota House and Senate versions of omnibus transportation bills provide no funding for passenger rail activities.

The office has been involved in planning work for a proposed second passenger train between Chicago and the Twin Cities to complement Amtrak’s Empire Builder on the route. If the legislation becomes law, effective July 1, the state transportation department would no longer be able to lead planning work for the second train, nor any work on other proposed passenger rail projects in the state. State funding would provide Minnesota’s match to funds provided by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority and the state of Wisconsin for continued project development of the second passenger train.

It may be possible for the Passenger Rail Office to be funded in a bonding bill, which is how it was most recently funded, but Republicans have shown no inclination to fund passenger rail in recent bonding bills. In 2016, a deal to enact a bonding bill failed when the measure contained no funding for transit, as Republicans took aim at the proposed Southwest Light Rail project in the Twin Cities. This year 84 Republican legislators sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chou urging her to refuse $900 million in funding for Southwest LRT under the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. Absent federal funding the project would be killed, even though local funding has been secured.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has been supportive of rail projects and has requested $1 million in bonding for rail that includes up to $500,000 for second phase of a train study.

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