Speed, price drop for proposed Minneapolis-Duluth passenger service

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Amtrak's 'North Star' departs Duluth in June 1984.
Steve Glischinski
MINNEAPOLIS – A higher speed passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Duluth will cost $500 million to $600 million, nearly half of earlier estimates, according to representatives of the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments.

The Northern Lights Express is a proposed passenger rail project between the Minneapolis and Duluth using BNSF Railway’s existing ex-Great Northern main line. The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance is a joint powers board formed to explore options for renewing passenger service on the 155-mile corridor. Amtrak’s North Star was the last passenger train to travel the corridor, with service ending Easter Sunday 1985 when Minnesota dropped its subsidy for the St. Paul-Duluth service.

The Alliance and community partners are working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation Passenger Rail & Environmental Services offices to advance the project.

Four round trips per day would operate on the corridor, the equivalent of what Great Northern operated in the 1960s with its twice-daily Badger and Gopher streamliners. Trains would travel at 90 mph, decreased from 110 mph that was proposed earlier. This would drop the projected cost of starting up the service to $500 million to $600 million, down from nearly $1 billion. This includes costs of stations, equipment, and track improvements. Service would begin in 2020. Total travel time between the cities would be about 2.5 hours.

Ridership for the service’s first year is projected to be 700,000 to 750,000 trips. Ridership is projected to increase to 1 million trips by 2040. Fare revenue is expected to cover most of the operating costs, estimated to average $17.5 million per year, officials said.

The next steps in the proposal include updating the preliminary project and operation cost estimates, and preparation of a final benefit-cost analysis after cost-sharing discussions with BNSF are completed. MnDOT is proceeding with preliminary engineering, a Tier II environmental assessment, financial and implementation plans. It’s anticipated that the project will be shovel ready by 2017, officials said.

The big question is how the construction and operation of the NLX will be paid for. Frank Loetterle, NLX Project Manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, told Trains News Wire that while there is no identifiable funding source right now, if projects want to apply for future federal funds, such as TIGER grants, they have to be well advanced in their planning. “It used to be you really didn’t start planning anything until you had the money," he says. “You really didn’t go too far in a project, such as (light rail), until somebody said ‘All right we’ve got the money now.’”

Now, Loetterle says if you want to apply for federal funding you have to be much farther along in the process. “You’ve got to be shovel ready, which means you’ve got the environmental work done, you’ve got the preliminary engineering done. You aren’t going to get funding until you advance the project.” His job, Loetterle said, is to get the project far enough along in the planning process so that it becomes eligible to apply for Federal grants.

Loetterle said MnDOT has been working very closely with the Federal Railroad Administration. “People at the FRA tell me that the way we are doing our job with ridership forecasts, cost estimates, and all the work we have been doing is a model for other projects around the country, and we’re actually farther out ahead of similar projects around the country. So when we get to the starting line, and funding becomes available, we are going to be the only ones at the starting line,” he said.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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