When Cass Casarez visits family in Wisconsin, the trip involves either hitching a ride, taking an Amtrak train or riding a bus. The St. Paul barista prefers the train, but eastbound and westbound rail options for Minnesotans are limited now.
Amtrak service nationwide could improve and expand for the first time in decades if President Joe Biden has his way — and the possibilities include an additional round-trip daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago, as well as revived rail service to Duluth.
They're projects that have lingered for years without action, mostly due to a lack of funding.
"You could say we've been living in a passenger rail desert for decades," said Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, a passenger rail advocacy group.
However, not everyone is all aboard. Some see rail expansion as a costly enterprise that could drain precious dollars from state coffers.
"It's difficult to support when we're trying to find ways to support roads and bridges," said Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, who sits on the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
Talk of train travel gained traction recently after Biden pitched his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes an $80 billion infusion for passenger rail.
"You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas onboard a high-speed train," said Biden, known as "Amtrak Joe" after commuting by rail for decades between Washington, D.C., and his home in Delaware.
Amtrak responded to the president's plan by releasing an ambitious blueprint of potentially new and improved rail corridors throughout the country, including Northern Lights Express service to Duluth and the additional trip to Chicago from St. Paul. Train geeks and enthusiasts alike were enthralled.
"It's super, super exciting," said Jason Serck, chairman of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance. "Lately, there seems to be a push for transit throughout the United States and we want to ride that."
Others are circumspect, including a writer from Politico who questioned parts of Amtrak's plan and said it spreads "rail money around like peanut butter."
Biden's infrastructure plan still must win congressional approval, no small feat in Washington, D.C. And in Minnesota, many suburban and rural Republican legislators are loathe to support passenger rail projects, especially the Northern Lights Express, which could cost $500 million to $600 million in public money to build.
Second train to Chicago
The $53 million proposal for an additional round trip between St. Paul's Union Depot and Union Station in Chicago began circulating more than a decade ago.
The idea is to supplement Amtrak's existing Empire Builder service between the Windy City and Seattle or Portland, Ore., where eastbound trains are often delayed because they share tracks with freight rail.
While two-thirds of the Empire Builder's trips were on time in February, on-time performance was 44% in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic cut into ridership, according to Amtrak.
Advocates say delays on a second train would be less likely on a route that travels largely through Wisconsin, a trip expected to take 7.5 hours — slightly faster than the Empire Builder. The train would leave St. Paul shortly before noon and arrive in Chicago shortly after 7 p.m.; the return train would leave Chicago about 11 a.m. and arrive in St. Paul shortly after 6 p.m.
It's estimated that about 124,000 passengers would take the second train annually, in addition to those taking the Empire Builder. Service could begin by late 2023 at the earliest — but it all depends on funding.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has ponied up nearly $32 million to help pay for track and signal improvements along the route. Wisconsin kicked in $6.2 million and Amtrak added another $5 million. Minnesota's portion would be $10 million, but it's unclear whether the funding will pass muster at the Legislature.
In addition, the federal government has awarded Minnesota and Wisconsin $12.6 million to help pay for the second train's first three years of operating costs, estimated between $11 million and $12.5 million annually (to be offset in part by fare revenue).
An express Up North
Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Duluth was shut down in 1985 after the state failed to pay its yearly operating costs. A proposal to revive it got a boost three years ago when federal officials said the project would not significantly affect the environment along its 152-mile route.
The plan calls for four round-trips daily between Target Field in Minneapolis and Duluth, with each trip taking 2.5 hours. One-way fares would cost an estimated $30.
Supporters say the route would prove popular with students, tourists, business travelers and patrons visiting Grand Casino in Hinckley.
"Tourism is a large part of the economic engine for greater Minnesota, but transportation options in rural areas are limited, " said Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which owns the casino.
"Mass transit opportunities like [Northern Lights Express] will boost economic development for the Mille Lacs Band and our non-Indian neighbors alike, bringing greater access to jobs, housing, health care, education and other services critical to east-central Minnesota."
Opponents note that existing Jefferson Lines bus service costs $9 one-way between Duluth and Minneapolis — a bargain when compared with the millions needed to build and operate a rail line.
"I see quite a few challenges here," Petersburg said. "The price for [a train] ticket is more than the cost of driving and it takes longer than if you drove. I don't have a problem with train travel per se, but how will we fund it?"
Supporters remain hopeful the state will ante up in some fashion to help foot the bill for both projects.
And rail supporters say that new money from the federal government could jump-start them. "It could create a very different world than the one we're in now," said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 @ByJanetMoore