Amid differing cost estimates and ridership figures, one thing has been nailed down for the Northern Lights Express: where the proposed high-speed passenger train would run.
Consultants working on the environmental study have selected Duluth as the northern terminus, and the first southern destination will be Superior, and not along the Munger Trail to Carlton, said Bob Manzoline of the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Rail Authority. The route then will cross back into Minnesota and through Hinckley to the southern terminus of Minneapolis.
"This will be the preferred route and recommended route to the [Federal Railroad Administration] for the project, so we got over that hump," said Manzoline, who still is wrangling with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on cost and ridership estimates.
(NLX officials say the train will cost about $600 million, but MnDOT says a high estimate could reach $1 billion. Similar discrepancies exist on ridership projections.)
In April, Northern Lights Express officials heard public suggestions that the 150-mile route should conclude in Superior and not run all the way into Duluth. Others said the train should run directly to Duluth and avoid Wisconsin. On Wednesday at Superior Middle School, the NLX officials and consultants spelled out why the route through Superior to Duluth makes the most sense.
"I know that a lot of people have been saying that the Carlton route would save a lot of time, but it actually wouldn't," Manzoline said. "It might save as much as 10 minutes, but weighing that against the other factors, it was not chosen."
The projected travel time from Duluth through Superior and to Minneapolis is about two hours and eight minutes.
One of the major reasons the Superior route was selected is that it's more cost-effective to double track along the existing BNSF Railway route than to build new tracks along the Munger Trail, which is currently only used as a recreational path, said Manzoline and John Ongaro, intergovernmental relations director for St. Louis County.
Other top criteria for the route were proximity to cities and locations with political support and, again, Superior makes sense in both those categories, Manzoline and Ongaro said. With Wisconsin, riders can board in Superior, and political support will come from Dave Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.
The NLX also is counting on the support of Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. With his support and Obey's, the NLX will seek up to 80 percent federal funding for its $600 million cost to be operational by 2012 or 2013.