Minnesota lawmakers should get on board with Gov. Tim Walz’s request for $11 million in bonding to further explore passenger rail projects, including $5 million focused on the Northern Lights Express, a proposed Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and twin ports.
The proposed project connecting Minneapolis to Duluth-Superior is promising but needs to be put into context of necessary investment in existing metro-area bus and train lines.
The Northern Lights Express would run between Target Field Station in Minneapolis and Duluth’s Depot Station, with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis.
At speeds averaging 60 miles per hour and at times reaching 90 mph, the trip would take about two-and-a-half hours, about equivalent to driving. Without the hassle of traffic, that is, and with the ability to work, sleep or just take in the view — attributes that an Amtrak spokesman told an editorial writer can be key drivers in getting people out of their cars and onto a train.
An estimated 700,000-750,000 would do just that in its first year of service, growing to about 1 million annual rides by 2040, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the lead agency on the proposed project. One-way ticket costs would be about $30, which MnDOT estimates would supply about $12 million of annual operating revenue for the first five years of the line, which would have annual operating costs of about $18.9 million.
It would cost $500 million to $600 million to get Northern Lights Express launched. Safety, track and signal upgrades would be needed to allow for increased train capacity and speed on tracks owned by BNSF, which has a history of successful partnership with Amtrak. Stations, maintenance and layover facilities, the actual locomotives and coaches, professional services (including testing) and a contingency budget would also be part of the expenditure.
MnDOT estimates that the construction phase would create about 3,000 jobs annually, with another 500 jobs created annually during the first five years of operation. Other spinoff employment, particularly in tourism, would be about 250 jobs per year.
Beyond these employment and economic benefits, there would be a positive environmental impact, too, if travelers take trains instead of driving. And more transit options might meet an intergenerational desire for more options as an aging population and younger, less car-centric travelers seek, or need, alternatives to cars.
But the costs of providing those alternatives are high, especially during the build-out phase. What’s not yet determined is how much of the money would come from the federal government vs. state (potentially including Wisconsin) and/or local sources, or investment from Amtrak.
And the Northern Lights Express proposal comes at a time of underfunding of existing metro-area bus and rail lines, which are an essential component of any economically competitive region. In fact, Metro Transit announced just this week that it will spend more to improve service and address security and reliability concerns.
It’s unclear if projects such as Northern Lights Express, as well as the proposed extension of Northstar commuter rail to St. Cloud, would be able to cut through partisan and geographic lines that have hardened in the Legislature.
The Twin Cities economy is still the locomotive that drives this state, and metro-area transit is critical in serving businesses and the employees they need to attract and retain.