While the battle raged at the Legislature this session over the controversial Southwest light-rail line, another rail project in Minnesota quietly hit an important milestone last week.

Environmental fieldwork for the Northern Lights Express high-speed passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Duluth is expected to begin this month. The price tag for the project is between $500 million and $600 million, but that has yet to be secured from federal and local sources.

Amtrak’s North Star service was discontinued along that route in 1985 because of flagging ridership and service problems. But there’s been talk about reviving the service at least since 1989, according to past Star Tribune stories.

Four daily roundtrips

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, which is leading the Northern Lights charge, said the proposed line will operate on 152 miles of existing BNSF Railway track. If built, the train would take about 2.5 hours (about the same as driving to Duluth) traveling at speeds up to 90 mph.

The line would start at Target Field Station, with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley (serving the Grand Casino), Duluth and Superior, Wis. Four round trips are planned daily, and the service would be operated by Amtrak.

Results of the required environmental studies, which are expected to be wrapped up by this fall, would be released early next year. MnDOT says field activities will involve “multiple contractors working on-site near the rail corridor and at station and facility locations.”

A number of considerations will be updated in the study, including track infrastructure, crossings, stations, and layover and maintenance facilities. The impact on social, cultural, environmental and transportation aspects will be evaluated, as well. Once the study is done, there will be time for the public to comment on it.

An earlier environmental study looked at different alternatives, ultimately settling on the current route along the BNSF corridor.

Steve Raukar, the head of the Minneapolis-Duluth Passenger Rail Alliance, says momentum is building in favor of the project, which could begin service as early as 2020.

Duluth tourism growing

“The Duluth area is seeing a growth in tourism, and this is one more way for people to get up to the North Shore, which is where they want to be,” he said.

Projected annual ridership is 700,000 to 750,000 trips the first year, with one million trips estimated by 2040. Annual operating costs are projected to be $17.5 million, with most covered by passenger fares, according to MnDOT. Fares are expected to be about $30 one-way.

Funding is always a controversial and divisive piece for any new rail project. Northern Lights got some good news late last year when the price was cut in half, from about $1 billion, because the top speed of the train was reduced from 110 mph (requiring its own set of tracks).

Unlike light-rail projects, which are funded with grants totaling 50 percent of the cost from the Federal Transit Administration, 80 percent of the Northern Lights project would be funded by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The remaining 20 percent — $100 million to $120 million — would come from yet-to-be-determined local sources. This could be counties, cities, the private sector and/or the state — although the latter is a dicey prospect. MnDOT has said that there would be “cost-sharing discussions” with BNSF.