Rail advocates remain optimistic that a second daily Amtrak train could be added between the Twin Cities and Chicago, even though the Legislature didn't fund a $4 million request to help pay for the project.
While disappointed, "I think we finally got some momentum this legislative session," said Mark Vaughan, chairman of the Great River Rail Commission, a group of local government officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin that support efforts to add a second train. He's hopeful lawmakers will see fit to fund the project next year.
The second train would carry passengers in both directions once a day between Chicago's Union Station and Union Depot in St. Paul — serving the 13 stations on Amtrak's Empire Builder long-distance route, as well as Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.
Because the service would not be part of the Empire Builder cross-country route, supporters say travel times would be faster — about 7.5 hours for the trip.
The project is expected to cost $130 million to $140 million in state and federal money.
This year's funding request by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) would have paid for more environmental and design work and service planning.
"We're kind of on life support for right now from our perspective, but we're keeping the project moving forward," said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin lawmakers this year allocated $300,000 to fund environmental work related to the project.
The budget pause in Minnesota comes as Amtrak rolls out its strategy for national service in the next month and as Congress debates the railroad's reauthorization and capital funding for coming years.
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told a Senate committee in Washington, D.C., last week that there is "great potential — and great need — to increase travel by train in under 400-mile corridors between major cities throughout the United States." The second train route between the Windy City and the Twin Cities would cover just over 400 miles.
Anderson noted that passenger rail suits smartphone-toting, urban-dwelling millennials because stations are in city centers and trains have Wi-Fi and "contemporary food and beverage choices in the cafe car."
Amtrak's current route network is not designed to meet emerging travel needs and passenger demand in fast-growing population centers, Anderson said. For example, Amtrak doesn't serve surging hot spots Las Vegas, Phoenix, Nashville or Columbus, Ohio.
Anderson didn't mention the second train between Chicago and the Twin Cities in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the project, along with a revival of passenger service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, would "bring Amtrak trains that are safe, reliable and relevant, both providing valuable alternatives to driving in current and new Amtrak markets."
An Amtrak feasibility study found that adding a second train daily could attract 155,000 new rides annually, in addition to the existing 123,000 passengers taking the Empire Builder, which begins in Chicago and ends in Seattle or Portland.
"You'd be providing an option for folks who don't want to fly or drive, or can't drive anymore or choose not to drive," Krom said. On current Empire Builder eastbound trains, only 25% of the passengers getting on the train in St. Paul consider Chicago their destination, he said.
"A lot of people from Red Wing, Winona, La Crosse, Tomah, the Dells are getting on and off," Krom added. "It's providing access for people for those markets in between where there aren't many options to fly."