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Passenger rail from Twin Ports to Twin Cities sees equal parts leverage, doubters

Already 2022 has emerged as a crucial year for Northern Lights Express, the proposed commuter railway that faces more state hurdles than federal ones.

A train passes the Grassy Point Bridge over the St. Louis River between Superior and Duluth.
A train operated by BNSF Railway crosses the Grassy Point Bridge as it heads from Duluth to Superior in 2010. The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would use the bridge to transit from Superior to Duluth. Among $450 million needed to build the rail line would be money to rehabilitate the bridge, so speed limits could be raised to 30 mph from current capacity between 5-15 mph.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The prospect of passenger rail service returning between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities enters 2022 either closer to — or further from — reality than ever before.

It depends on the official who's talking.

“We’re moving forward,” said state Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown. “There’s more interest in working together from freight rail than there was last year.”

Mary Murphy
Mary Murphy

Murphy introduced two bills this week which would pay $85 million, either through bonding or the general fund, to make the $450 million Northern Lights Express passenger rail project come to life.

But proponents of the project say they’re hitting a roadblock when it comes to Republican lawmakers — even those along the route.

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“I don’t see why people would use it,” said state Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City. “It’s going to take longer than a bus or any other transportation, and I don’t see that the cost is going to be worth the usage.”

In the face of resistance, there's updated support from Gov. Tim Walz, a new $1 trillion federal infrastructure package that’s in favor of shovel-ready construction, and a $7.75 billion state budget surplus.

The project would update 152 miles of existing Burlington Northern-Santa Fe track to be used to carry a passenger train projected to reach speeds up to 90 mph. Planned stops would fall between Target Field Station in Minneapolis and the Depot in Duluth, with additional stations in Superior, Hinckley, Cambridge and Coon Rapids. "Passing" sidings would be built along the route to allow freight traffic to carry through as the passenger train pulled off to the side.

Northern Lights Express rail line
The Northern Lights Express passenger rail line.
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, isn't giving up pursuit of the project, even if it's on an uphill grade. She co-wrote the $85 million funding bills with Murphy. The dollar figure equates to 20% of $450 million, the amount that would trigger 80% federal matching funds.

“We’ve heard clearly from our communities that this is a priority,” Olson said. “We don’t want to pass up the opportunity to leverage federal funding.”

Yet while Amtrak, the national passenger rail provider, has said it wants to operate the service, BNSF has not signed off and won’t, organizers say, until the project is fully funded.

“Burlington Northern owns the corridor, and they need to agree to this — but they don’t have time to speculate,” said Bob Manzoline, executive director for the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority and a member of the alliance lobbying to build Northern Lights Express.

Manzoline noted that while proponents are as enthusiastic as they’ve always been for the project, there remains a sizable hurdle.

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“We still have the elected officials on the GOP side that don’t want to fund anything that has to do with (passenger) rail,” Manzoline said.

Manzoline noted he’s not given up on trying to convince opponents that the passenger service would be good for freight and business, too.

“The passing sidings would be fairly extensive,” Manzoline said. “So, the freight trains can meet, too, freight-on-freight — those kinds of things that you don’t have in place now.”

But Rarick said his attitude toward the reintroduction of passenger rail to Duluth for the first time since 1985 mimics his constituents.

“Even where the line is going to run in Pine County, I just don’t see a lot of support for it,” Rarick said.

Jason Rarick
Jason Rarick

He admitted to letters in support of Northern Lights Rail from the city of Sandstone, which would be home to a railroad maintenance facility, and the city of Finlayson.

“But other than that, so much of the local response has been opposed to it, and I just see the cost, for what I see the ridership will be, is just not going to be worth it,” Rarick said.

He said he wouldn’t favor the rail project even if it had 80% of its federal money for the project nearly guaranteed — something proponents say is the case given the project’s readiness.

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“Federal funds are still taxpayer dollars,” Rarick said. “I’ve never been one to go with the approach that federal money is free money for the state.”

The express railway is proposed to operate four round trips per day, costing $18.9 million annually with anticipated revenues of $12 million. It would require an annual state subsidy.

“Not that it wouldn’t serve a purpose,” Rarick said. “I just don’t see that it’s viable.”

With the passing of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law last November, the Northern Lights Rail project seemed closer than ever.

“NLX is the most shovel-ready project and we’re just trying to prepare for that,” Olson said.

Siemens Charger SC-44_Northern Lights Express
A Siemens Charger SC-44 passenger locomotive used by Amtrak Midwest. It's the type of locomotive which could be used on the Northern Lights Express between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities.
Contributed / Amtrak

Funding it would make for 117 railroad crossing upgrades along with the construction of depots, passenger platforms and other infrastructure — mostly the addition of four to five of the aforementioned passing sidings along the route.

Gov. Walz included $16 million for NLX in his $2.7 billion worth of bonding requests earlier this month. For Murphy, it was another example of leverage in favor of the project.

“Sixteen million doesn’t cover us, but it gets us started,” Murphy said of the governor’s nod to the project.

Murphy sounded motivated to take advantage of the federal commitment to infrastructure, noting that the money won’t be there for long.

“The state surplus won’t always be there, either,” she said.

Murphy pointed to operating commuter rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, and the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Seattle, Washington.

“There seems to be a new attitude about rail transportation in the state,” Murphy said. “And there’s a better fit right now with federal money.”

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Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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