Supporters of a proposed second round-trip train between the Twin Cities and Chicago are determined to advance the project despite failing to win funding at the legislature last month.
"The second train is by no means dead," said Brian Nelson, president of the passenger rail advocacy group All Aboard Minnesota. "We are investigating a whole host of [funding] alternatives."
Earlier this year, the project received a boost when the Federal Railroad Administration awarded it $32 million. But the money comes with the caveat that Minnesota kick in $10 million in matching funds.
While the Minnesota House and Gov. Tim Walz supported the project this year, the Republican-controlled Senate wasn't on board.
Ultimately, Nelson said $3 million was set aside in one version of the bonding bill for both the second Chicago train and for the Northern Lights Express, a high-speed rail project that would provide train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
But that money was diverted to pay for repairs to the Grassy Point Bridge, a railroad span across the St. Louis Bay connecting Superior, Wis., to Duluth.
Mark Vaughan, chair of the Great River Rail Commission, said he was disappointed with the Legislature's lack of support for the second train to Chicago, but not deterred.
"We won't stop, and we're hoping to get it back on the radar" during next year's legislative session, he said.
The commission, which consists of government officials, is slated to meet Thursday to discuss the fate of the project, which is expected to receive $6.2 million in matching funds from Wisconsin and $5 million from Amtrak. If all funding falls in place, a second daily train could begin service in 2024, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
"It's frustrating because for a while, we were waiting on Wisconsin to step up, but now Minnesota is the holdout," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee at the Capitol.
Amtrak service already exists between St. Paul's Union Depot and the Windy City on the Empire Builder, a route that extends to the West Coast. Amtrak recently pared back daily Empire Builder service to three trips a week because of fallout related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But supporters say new round-trip service between the Twin Cities and Chicago would take less time and enjoy better on-time performance and reliability for regional trips, which is important for attracting business and student travel.
Hornstein said Senate Republicans "are biased against any kind of rail project, whether it's passenger rail, commuter rail or light rail."
Senate Republicans could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Another project critic is Andrew Selden, president of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers, who says competitive bids should be solicited for the service.
"There's clearly a market for more rail passenger services in Minnesota, including on this route, but those opportunities should be developed through competitive processes, not sole-sourcing to a high-cost, de facto monopoly provider," Selden wrote in an e-mail, referring to Amtrak. "There are at least a half dozen companies that would be interested in bidding on this if the opportunity arose."
From Nelson's perspective, the funding news wasn't all bad. The diversion of state funds to the Duluth railroad bridge is needed to accommodate the Northern Lights project.
Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office, said in an e-mail that "the bridge is a critical and heavily used freight rail connection for the region and is used by all the major railroads in northeast Minnesota."
The bridge's center span pivots to allow ships to pass, but last year the mechanism that operates the swing bridge failed for several weeks, resulting in a "severe disruption of freight rail traffic in the region," Krom said.
The $3 million in bonding funds will be used to fix the bridge, he added.