Is a proposed passenger train line from Minneapolis to Duluth on course for a $700 million derailment? Or is it merely headed toward a $300,000 detour that could delay plans a year?

Faced with competition from nine other routes seeking federal funding as well as a possible rerouting of the line's Twin Cities starting point -- to St. Paul, instead of Minneapolis -- proponents of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) have shifted gears.

They missed the Aug. 1 deadline for a $55 million federal grant application, opting instead to focus on completing a new environmental analysis. That study will cost at least $300,000, experts say. But should it persuade federal officials to fund NLX -- at up to 80 percent -- over other projects, the analysis could ultimately pay hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends.

"There's a lot at stake here," said John Ongaro, St. Louis County director of intergovernmental affairs. "It goes far beyond the cost of this study, which could be as much as $500,000."

The NLX line, projected just two years ago to cost $360 million, has doubled in price, according to latest estimates. While the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has backed away from the near $1 billion price tag it predicted 10 months ago, the 155-mile high-speed line is expected to cost between $615 million and $700 million if completed by 2014, Ongaro said from Duluth.

For cities in Anoka and Isanti counties, there is even more at stake. Residents there are counting on a commuter line to run on the NLX track, from Cambridge to Minneapolis. If federal officials opt for a line that starts in Duluth but follows the Rush line corridor from Hinckley and goes to Union Station in St. Paul instead of Target Field in Minneapolis, it will miss most or all of Anoka and Isanti counties and the commuter line will be shelved.

While the federal funding is designated for passenger rail, Anoka County has played a driving role in securing an NLX line with the hope that it also could accommodate a north-south commuter route, much as the Northstar line serves commuters from Sherburne and Anoka counties going to and from Minneapolis.

Defeating the purpose

"Of all the [proposed] rail lines to run through Hinckley, the NLX line is the only one that will get people from Minneapolis to Duluth in two hours," said Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, who also chairs the county's rail authority. "If you run people from Duluth to St. Paul and then have them take the light rail to Minneapolis, you defeat the purpose of the line because you're adding another 20 minutes.

"It's frustrating. We know the federal money available is for passenger rail. But the reality is that you can build a commuter rail on this same line -- and that's what the future is all about."

During the Bush administration, strong consideration was given to 16 projects in which existing freight lines would be tapped for passenger routes. Erhart says that a bipartisan group of experts listed the NLX route in its top eight. U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the House transportation committee, has conferred with Erhart often about NLX but would not take a public stand supporting one proposed Minnesota rail line over another, an aide said.

"Nothing's changed. The money's still there and there's no indication that anyone from the Federal Rail Administration wants to scuttle the project," said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's passenger rail office.

Approximately $11 billion is being made available nationwide for new or improved passenger rail lines, said Krom.

"The feds have made it clear that if you can't deliver the product, don't apply," Krom said. "You have to have your environmental ducks in a row. When all is said and done, I think this Cambridge line [from Minneapolis to Duluth] may be among the highest-ranking corridors."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419