DULUTH – Mary Murphy isn't looking for a time machine when she says: "We have to learn how to travel into the future."

The Hermantown DFL state representative just wants Minnesota to catch up.

"If we're planning for the 21st century, and 20 years have gone by already, we have to have something in place for the 80 years to follow," Murphy said. "That is the Northern Lights Express."

On Wednesday a procession of local political leaders and advocates pitched a visiting House subcommittee on the need for the long-planned return of passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

While officially an informational hearing for Murphy's $4 million bonding bill that would help push the Northern Lights Express (sometimes called NLX) engineering phase across the finish line, many were optimistic that the wheels are finally greased for the $550 million project.

"It will change everything," said Ken Buehler, chairman of the NLX Alliance Technical Advisory Committee.

As proposed, there would be four round trips per day on existing BNSF tracks with stops in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, Superior and Duluth. With top speeds of 90 mph and an average speed of 60 mph, the trip between the Duluth Depot and Target Field would take about 2½ hours, similar to the drive time.

Officials said a one-way ticket would cost $35-$38.

With those rates, an Amtrak official estimated a $17 million annual subsidy would be needed. Bob Manzoline, NLX Alliance executive director, said the required subsidy would likely be closer to $7 million.

"A subsidy would be required, but a subsidy is required for local transit, for a number of things — it's up to you to decide whether that makes sense to the state," Derrick James, Amtrak senior manager of government affairs, told legislators.

The subsidy discussion and other questions of how the $550 million project will be paid for — federal money is supposed to play a large part — are part of a long checklist facing the Northern Lights Express that puts it several years away from being operational even if everything goes according to plan.

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, said the wheels should start turning faster. A proposed passenger rail connection from St. Paul to Eau Claire could give an edge to a University of Wisconsin branch that competes with the University of Minnesota Duluth and other state institutions.

"If we don't get ahead of this, other communities in Wisconsin will," she said.

While most of the speakers who came to UMD on Tuesday afternoon were in favor of the project, and legislators were generally receptive, resident Diane Saunders said the project was outdated as soon as it was proposed for its reliance on 20th-century technology.

"We need a true modern-day rail solution, not some nostalgic train from the past. There's just no incentive to ride it."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496