Monday, April 29, 2013

Northern Lights Express

Starting in the spring of 1978, Amtrak provided passenger rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.  The 3.5 hour trip provided an alternative transit mode for those conducting business or leisure trips between the two metropolitan areas.  However, due to low ridership and federal subsidy cuts, Amtrak stopped operations for good in April of 1985.  Since then, transit advocates have pushed for a renewal in passenger rail service along the 155-mile corridor.

The Northern Lights Express
In 2007, the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance was created in order to unify regional rail authority efforts for restoring rail service between the two metros.  Later that year, the Alliance funded a comprehensive feasibility study that compared speed options for rail service between the cities of Duluth and Minneapolis.  The report found that providing a service of 8 round trips per day, with top speeds reaching 110 mph, would create an operation surplus for the line.  This study provided the foundational justification for what the Alliance would later name the Northern Lights Express (NLX).

To date, the NLX Project can be summarized by the following:
  • 155-mile route between Minneapolis and Duluth 
  • Speeds of up to 110 miles per hour
  • Duration of complete trip would be 2 hours and 17 mins.  
    • 13 mins less than average vehicle travel time via the I-35 Corridor
  • Proposed stations include:
    • Minneapolis
    • Coon Rapids
    • Cambridge
    • Hinckley
    • Superior 
    • Duluth
  • Projected cost:  $350 million to $1 billion
  • Possible operating subsidy of $37-$83 per passenger
  • The Alliance suggests that there are numerous benefits associated with the NLX project.  
  • Ridership projections:
    • 938,000 annually
    • 2,569 per day
  • Total federal, state & local financial contributions exceed $13 million 

Funding Concerns
Although the federal government has provided planning grants, it has yet to finalize or approve its share  for NLX's construction or operating costs.  Typically the federal government covers up to 80% of passenger rail project construction costs.  However, the nation's most recent transportation bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), failed to provide any high speed rail funding through the 2014 fiscal year.  Thus, the federal governments contribution to the NLX project won't be determined until another federal transportation bill is passed in 2014.

Rising project costs and the unknowns regarding the federal government's contribution to the project have  proven troublesome for NLX stakeholders.  Citing concerns about the possibility of being responsible for providing construction funding and/or operating subisidies for the NLX project, the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority withdrew from the Minneapolis-Duluth Passenger Rail Alliance on June 12, 2012.  Although this reversal of support was surprising, the Alliance maintains that the project will continue to move forward.

Recent Developments
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in consultation with the Federal Rail Authority (FRA), recently completed its Tier 1 Environmental Assessment (EA) for the NLX project.  Thankfully for NLX advocates, the EA determined that there weren't any significant environmental barriers that would stymie the project's development.  NLX's next hurdle is to complete the preliminary engineering (PE) for specific corridor improvements.  This process is anticipated to be complete by 2016 and should provide stakeholders with an updated project cost estimation. As the PE efforts continue through the support of existing federal and state allocations, many questions remain for NLX critics.

Two questions to consider:

  • Would you take the NLX to Duluth?  If so, how much would you be willing to pay?
  • If the federal government fails to provide funding for the project, would you be willing to pay for the NLX through an increase in county or state taxes?

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