The day after saying that a passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth could cost $1 billion, the state transportation official who talked about that price tag was shocked by what he heard at a public meeting in Cambridge:

"Just get it done."

"People told me they didn't care what it cost," said Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), who oversees all state rail projects and has attended environmental assessment open houses in four cities along the proposed line.

"There was no opposition whatsoever," said Christianson, who worked as a consultant for the proposed Northern Lights Express line before becoming MnDOT's project manager. "The support for this passenger rail line is probably stronger than for any I've ever seen."

Northern Lights Express (NLX) alliance officials, who last year projected the cost of the 155-mile line at $360 million, have nearly doubled that figure to $615 million. But that, says John Ongaro, director of intergovernmental affairs in Duluth, is a far cry from the $990 million that Christianson calls a "worst-case scenario."

"It won't be close to $1 billion, and Dave Christianson has worked on this project long enough to know that," Ongaro said.

Christianson hopes Ongaro is right. When Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, one of the engines trying to move this line, asked Christianson whether he agreed with the $615 million figure, Christianson said he responded, "Yes."

Then how did the cost projections of NLX and MnDOT, seemingly further apart than Minneapolis and Duluth, suddenly become as hazy as a snowstorm covering the Duluth harbor?

MnDOT suggests it would be necessary to buy as many as eight sets of trains to accommodate eight daily round trips from Minneapolis to Duluth. But NLX says trains reaching speeds of 110 miles per hour and covering 155 miles in slightly more than two hours could make more than one round trip per day. That could deflate the cost by as much as $200 million, Christianson said.

MnDOT also wants two sets of tracks running the entire route. But NLX thinks only the middle two-thirds of the route -- from Coon Rapids to Sandstone, the stretch where the train would probably reach its highest speeds -- needs a second track. That also could save the project hundreds of millions of dollars, Christianson said.

Price of gas a factor

The price tag that Christianson said may convince skeptics of the line's real value is $4-plus -- the price of a gallon of gas last year.

"When we did a cost-benefit analysis, we talked about gaining more freeway capacity as a good tradeoff," Christianson said. "But if the price of gas doubles, we're going to have enough passengers to fill this train no matter what the tickets cost."

Citizens will learn more about the line when MnDOT presents some of its state rail plan findings and asks for public input on its website,, before Christmas.

"When building a railroad, you can figure out what things are going to cost and be off by 50 percent, depending on assumptions," Christianson said of the line that NLX officials hope will open in 2012 or 2013. "More important, we have to start determining what a good system looks like, who it will benefit and how we can make it happen.

"You can't say, 'Build it and they will come,'" Christianson said. "But when I went to Cambridge, the day after the newspaper article in which I said it could cost $1 billion, people shook my hand and said, 'Get 'er done. Let's get this thing started.'"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419