With gas prices so low right now, who needs to consider an alternative to taking the car to get anywhere?
Regardless, the folks who have been pushing for nearly a decade to revive passenger rail service between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities remain hard at it, despite some pretty legitimate pushback. They’re the NLX Passenger Rail Alliance, with NLX standing for Northern Lights Express, joined by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and others. And they’re as optimistic as ever their train project is going to become a reality.
“It’s teed up,” Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said in an interview this month. “I think it’s a question of when, not if.”
In December, alliance members announced big changes to their proposal that would lower project costs from an astronomical $1 billion or so to a maybe-doable $500 million or $600 million, with 80 percent of the money provided by the federal government, they pointed out.
MnDOT officials have scheduled a series of open houses at which the public can review the updated plans, ask questions and make comments, for or against.
“We haven’t reached out for a while to the public, [and right now] is the beginning of [a second round of] environmental work, [so] it seemed like a good time,” MnDOT spokeswoman Mary McFarland Brooks said. “We want to know what people are thinking. I mean, we get communication from people every day on it — some of it is positive and some of it negative. Some people won’t like it no matter what the cost.”
Considering how huge the dollar figures have been and the so-far less-than-convincing arguments made that anyone will even ride this train, taxpayer skepticism has been more than understandable.
The lowered cost projection had to be seen as at least promising. By going a little slower — 90 miles per hour instead of 110 mph — and by having fewer daily runs to minimize conflicts with freight trains and the need for side spurs, NLX will be able to operate on existing track, saving on the huge expense of building new. At that speed, getting from the Twin Ports to the Twin Cities will be about as fast as in a car, and for a fare of $30 to $32.
More people riding the train will mean fewer cars on Interstate 35, helping the concrete surface last longer, easing congestion and reducing environment-damaging carbon emissions, Zelle said.
“But I want to be realistic, too,” he said. “I don’t see immediate funding.”
The timing just isn’t right even if plans for NLX are well along. Gas prices are too low currently. There’s a lack of political will. And the statewide focus for passenger rail expansion is fixed in the Twin Cities.
When the timing is right, though, NLX will be ready to go, Zelle predicted.
And maybe by then supporters will have data and facts enough to convince the taxpaying public that the cost-vs.-return will be workable and that investing in a Twin Ports-to-Twin Cities passenger train service makes sense.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE