In 2007, as editor of a weekly newspaper in east-central Minnesota, I began covering the Northern Lights Express (NLX) before it even had a name (“Rail to twin ports is worth exploring,” editorial, March 23).
It began with a group of counties between Duluth and Minneapolis that were intent on providing rail transportation to an area where it had proved a failure 25 years before.
The counties, represented by appointed commissioners, began contributing tax money from their residents. They even hired lobbyists to sell their idea to legislators. Five thousand of those tax dollars were used to hire a group to name “the train.” Thus, NLX was born.
It was the beginning of millions of federal and state dollars being spent on a form of publicly funded transportation that would never serve most of the counties that paid those yearly dues.
The board of county commissioners who took on the name “NLX Alliance” waxed and waned. Three of them have died over the 12 years the alliance milked tax dollars from the counties of St. Louis, Lake, Pine, Isanti, Anoka and Hennepin in Minnesota and Douglas in Wisconsin, and the cities of Minneapolis, Duluth-Superior, Sandstone and Cambridge.
Anoka was the first to withdraw from the alliance, not wanting to take on another fiscal burden like Northstar commuter rail.
Pine County was next when residents petitioned its board to remove support from NLX. Isanti County backed out and Cambridge came in.
NLX lobbied to have the state laws changed to allow native tribal bands to become members of joint powers, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe became paying members.
Small, struggling towns like Sandstone even took their precious tax dollars and sent representatives to Washington, D.C., to press their point. They wined and dined Talgo, a train-manufacturing and maintenance company, and had fireworks to impress all with the vague possibility of a train clean-out station in the small town. Now they are on the alliance’s yearly budget for $1,500 per year.
The alliance hired feasibility studies, consultants, planning and engineering firms, federal and state lobbyists.
A new state agency, the passenger-rail division of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), was created for NLX to the tune of $500,000 per year, though it produces nothing and oversees nothing. Minnesota’s yearly omnibus/lights-on bills have continued to fund MnDOT’s passenger-rail bureau.
Surveys were taken and performed. However, central Minnesotans weren’t part of the survey unless they happened to be in Minneapolis. If memory serves me, the survey was done at the Mall of America.
All of the spending began with the TEMS (Transportation Economics Management Systems Inc.) feasibility study.
Keep in mind, when a company or individual is hired to do a survey or report, it isn’t asked to prove why something can’t work; it’s hired to find ways to massage information to prove the thing can work.
Alex Metcalf, president of TEMS, presented a beautifully designed, costly report on what would be needed to take the idea from drawing board to the ground.
In order for the alliance to get approval from the Federal Rail Administration, it would have to prove the need and the speed.
The need was supplied with this number: 4 million visitors each year to Grand Casino Hinckley, in Pine County.
The speed — it must prove to be a faster trip than the freeway could provide from Duluth to Minneapolis. Thus, it must exceed 70 miles per hour by quite a bit, considering there would be stops along the way, curves and that big slowdown in Superior, the L-curve. The study said it would take speeds of 110 mph.
The price to put NLX on the tracks would go from $350 million in 2008 to $1 billion in 2013.
Costs included many crossing upgrades of $15 million or more each. Double tracking, at $1 million per mile, to allow freight to also run on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks. Special trains that could tilt with the curve of the tracks would also be required. Track leases would have to be acquired from BNSF, the tracks where NLX would operate.
The taxpayers continued to pay for surveys and plans and engineering in the millions of dollars. When there was favorable support at the state and federal government levels, and the promise of “funding,” the boardroom at Pine County Government Center would fill with agencies, public and private, for the monthly NLX meeting.
Choosing a route through or around Hinckley brought residents to community meetings where they learned that their land, including family farms, could be taken by eminent domain for this transportation project so it could stop at the casino.
David Levinson spoke to community members at that time, informing them that passenger rail does not make enough money to pay for itself. It is subsidized by tax dollars.
Levinson held the Richard P. Braun/CTS Chair in Transportation Engineering at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies from 2006 to 2016. He served as faculty in the school’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering and was noted as a prolific transportation researcher. He specialized in rail transportation.
He said the environmental impact of putting a train on the tracks was significant, such as the proposed multibillion-dollar rail line in California, which would leave a carbon footprint for 150 years.
The NLX project was finally turned over to MnDOT in 2016, but the alliance continues as a lobbying group supported by tax dollars from participating counties and cities. The alliance consists of and is now funded by the Hennepin County Rail Authority; the cities of Duluth, Minneapolis, Cambridge, Sandstone and Superior, Wis.; and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Through the years, private partnership with NLX was under discussion, but it never came to fruition.
The model for NLX has gone from high-speed rail to a less stressful ride from Duluth to Minneapolis where riders can tally “billable hours.” Or, a ride to college for students.
Levinson said it would take many hundreds of riders each day and many, many trips daily for NLX to even pay for itself.
The poor counties of central Minnesota do not need another transportation tax to take riders to Target Field. The rest of the state should not be responsible for subsidizing this luxury, either. Northstar Rail is the lesson, with taxpayers subsidizing $18 to $22 per rider since it was put on the tracks.
NLX has nothing to offer east-central and greater Minnesota other than the promise of higher taxes for subsidized transportation that does not serve them.
Ailene Croup, of Hinckley, Minn., is publisher and editor of PiCK News.