Prospects have brightened considerably in recent days for the return of a long-lost Minnesota pleasure -- taking a train from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior. With it would come a new commuting option for downtown Minneapolis workers who live in the northern suburbs.
Courtesy of the transportation budgeting handiwork of U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., Congress has embarked on the renewal of passenger rail service in this country. Oberstar, who represents northeastern Minnesota's Eighth District and chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, crafted a bill authorizing $14 billion over the next five years to improve Amtrak. He has his eye on a proposed Minneapolis-to-Duluth high-speed line as a potential beneficiary of the bill's $1.9 billion in 80/20 matching grants for new state passenger rail service.
In that, Oberstar is not alone. For years, eight Minnesota city and county governments and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have been engaged in quiet but serious planning for a new line they've dubbed the Northern Lights Express. Anoka County's visionary commissioner Dan Erhart has been working on the idea for 15 years.
Already last February, a Maryland-based consultant completed a feasibility study for their joint powers board. It concluded that a line with top speeds of 110 miles per hour and a direct link to Grand Casino in Hinckley would be financially self-sustaining after an initial ramp-up period.
That's not enough to guarantee a federal grant, but it's a crucial start. The higher hurdle to be cleared is at the State Capitol. Getting the Northern Lights Express rolling is expected to cost about $400 million. The state need not provide the entire 20 percent non-federal share; local and some private expenditures at stations would count toward the match. But the state's share still could exceed $50 million.
That's a big request for any state bonding bill. But it's a bargain for a train with as much potential for good as Northern Lights has.
At 110 miles per hour, Northern Lights would get its passengers from Minneapolis to Duluth in a little more than two hours -- faster than a car trip. They would travel with the satisfaction of knowing they were consuming less energy than they would have in their cars.
Within a few years of the anticipated start of service in 2012, they would likely see a spurt of private development along the way, as the promise of a fast and reliable commuter connection inspires residential and retail growth near the train's stations. Already, said John Ongaro, government relations director for St. Louis County, "the biggest problem is that every community in this corridor wants a station."
A modern, high-speed train from Minneapolis to Duluth should only be the start. Linking the Twin Cities to Rochester and upgrading Amtrak service to Chicago should also be on the drawing board. Gas prices this summer gave Minnesotans a foretaste of the future cost of their auto addiction. With federal rail money available to help, it's time to begin to kick that habit.