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Bonding proposals could ramp up train travel between Twin Cities and Duluth, Chicago

Are Minnesotans ready to ride the rails again? If presented with the option of hopping on a train and traveling between the Twin Cities and Duluth or Chicago, would they leave the car keys at home and climb aboard?

Passenger rail advocates say studies suggest they would. And new routes would get chugging much sooner under two bills laid over by the House Capital Investment Committee Tuesday.

HF1109, sponsored by Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), would help get the Northern Lights Express on track between the Twin Cities and Duluth with an appropriation of $4 million.

Meanwhile, Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) is the sponsor of HF1251. Its $10 million from the state would be the last piece of funding for a second daily Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee and points across Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota. Neither bill has a Senate companion.

Map of the proposed Northern Lights Express rail route between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Map courtesy MnDOT

The Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago train would supplement the Empire Builder route that currently carries passengers to and from Chicago with one St. Paul stop daily in each direction.  

“The dilemma is with current service,” Hausman said. “The train leaves the West Coast, runs into weather in the mountains and freight traffic in the Dakotas, and arrives late in St. Paul every day.”

The new train route would originate in St. Paul and run along the same southeasterly path as the Empire Builder, but would leave and return within a few hours of the current train. The total estimated cost of $53 million would primarily fund upgrades to track, stations and crossings in Minnesota and Wisconsin, $40.7 million of it in Minnesota.

The project has procured two federal grants totaling $44.4 million, but a $10 million match from Minnesota is required for one of them. That’s the last piece of the funding puzzle, according to Dan Krom, the director of the Department of Transportation’s passenger rail office.

“For $10 million, we’re getting $40 million in improvements,” he said.

Gov. Tim Walz agrees that it’s a good use of the state’s bonding capacity, as he included the $10 million in the bonding proposal he released Monday. Environmental approval of the line is expected in April.

The Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth faces a far larger funding gap of $500-$600 million, according to a 2018 estimate.

“How much would be the state’s responsibility has yet to be determined,” Krom said, adding that the federal government has already committed to over half of the total costs. He expressed optimism about the new presidential administration’s growing advocacy for passenger rail travel.

Krom described the route as having four round trips daily, each one-way trip taking about two-and-a-half hours on existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe track. Department of Transportation research suggests that it would carry 700,000 passengers in its first year.

Krom said about 65% of each line’s operating cost would be covered by passenger fares.

The committee chair, Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Mpls), asked if there is a deadline for Minnesota to come up with the $10 million for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago line.

“There is no sunset,” Krom replied. “But there’s a saying that idle money is available money. … When the funding is provided, it will take about three years before service commences.”

Kevin Roggenbuck, senior transportation planner for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority and member of the Great River Rail Commission, said access to passenger rail service would increase significantly if the two projects go forward.

“There would be a doubling of the current ridership,” he said. “A little more than half of the state’s population would be within 30 miles of a station.”

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