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Duluth train service in the hands of state lawmakers

Federal dollars are finally available to restore passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, but it will take matching funds from the Legislature.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Those who’ve dreamed of riding a train from the Twin Cities to Duluth are closer than ever to seeing that happen, thanks to the new federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021. It could mean the restoration of regular passenger rail service along that corridor for the first time since 1985.

The law passed by Congress and signed late last year by President Biden set aside $66 billion for rail projects, with $16 billion of that dedicated to intercity links like the proposed Northern Lights Express in Minnesota.

"The Northern Lights Express is shovel ready and there’s now shovel-ready money from the new infrastructure law," explained Ken Buehler, who chairs the technical advisory committee for the NLX Alliance.  "We are within reach, the closest we have ever been."

The plan, which has been in the works for decades, calls for daily Amtrak service between Target Field and the Duluth Depot, with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Hinckley. There would be four trips per day in each direction, with trips taking roughly two and a half hours.

The trains will run on existing freight lines but the money is needed for upgrades to tracks and rail bridges, and for building passenger stations and track sidings.

Link: to MNDOT Northern Lights Express website

"It is the line that carried passenger trains in the past and will again in the future," Buehler remarked. "It is not a light rail project. It is not a transit project like North Star. It is not dependent on commuters to make the numbers."

The project has already been through a thorough environmental review and has received a critical Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, from the Federal Railroad Administration. Buehler said the Northern Lights Express is the only intercity rail proposal in the nation that is that far along in the permitting process.

That greatly increases the odds the Northern Lights Express will get the green light for federal funding to cover 80% of the $435 million project. The remaining 20% local match, which equates to $85 million, would need to come from the Minnesota Legislature.

The state has a projected $9 billion surplus, so the money is there. But nothing is that simple in Minnesota’s politically divided legislature.

The DFL-controlled House had placed the matching funds in this year’s omnibus transportation bill, but the GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t warmed to the idea. In fact, the Senate transportation bill specifically bars MnDOT from spending any state money for matching funds on federally funded rail projects.

Capitol Republicans have been opposed to all forms of rail, citing the upfront expense of rail lines and have branded it "19th Century technology."  Buehler said if Minnesota turns down Uncle Sam’s money it will go to a different train project in another state.

"Turning down the federal money it’s not like you’re saving that federal money. It’s going to be spent somewhere building a railroad project just like Northern Lights Express. Why not have it in Minnesota where it can benefit Minnesotans?"

He said the fact that Duluth and the Twin Cities are tourist destinations, as i Grand Casino in Hinckley, passenger counts are expected to be higher on weekends, which helps make the numbers work.

“We only need to take a small fraction of the traffic already traveling this route on I-35 to get them out of their car. There are two things we have now that we didn’t in 1985 – the cell phone and laptop. You take that windshield time and, on the train, turn it into productive time.”