ST. PAUL - Plans for a second daily passenger train from St. Paul to Chicago could chug forward with Democrats in control of the House and the governor’s office. Will talks for a high-speed service also be revived?
Gov.-elect Tim Walz is on board. He says passenger-rail expansion could help accommodate a growing population and reduce carbon emissions.
“There’s a desire to make sure that we’re moving to a transportation system that serves us into the next century,” Walz said. “I think those who see … a renewed opportunity here, or renewed interest, that’s real.”
But a high-speed rail connecting the Twin Cities to Milwaukee and Chicago would require a lot of buy-in. The project, which could cost close to $1 billion, would be split between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois and matching federal grants.
For now, rail advocates say, a second passenger train from St. Paul to Chicago is more within reach.
“I think that is far more realistic and far more within the appetite of the Legislature to fund it, both in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” said Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, a rail advocacy group.
The vision for high-speed rail, proposed to run between St. Paul and Chicago at speeds above 125 mph, dates to the 1990s.
The project struggled to gain momentum in recent years because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker opposed it as “runaway government spending.” In 2010, the Republican rejected $810 million in federal funds for a similar high-speed project between Madison and Milwaukee.
Walker was ousted by Democrat Tony Evers last month. Even with the political shakeup, it is unclear whether Wisconsin would be a willing partner. Republicans still control the Legislature.
There isn’t much urgency for high-speed rail in Minnesota, either.
Minnesota Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said high-speed rail is a “dead issue” without Wisconsin’s support.
“Realistically, there’s no way to get to Chicago with a high-speed rail without going through Wisconsin,” said Newman, who chairs the Senate transportation committee and blocked funding for Minnesota to study the project earlier this year.
For the state to resume work on the project, lawmakers would have to OK $182,000 in funding for the Minnesota Department of Transportation to wrap up an environmental impact study.
Completing that study allows the project to proceed to its next stage: more studies - at least $7 million worth, according to Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s passenger-rail office.
Krom said MnDOT is no longer pursuing money to study high-speed rail. If the agency taps into federal grants, he said, it will use them to fund work on a second passenger train to Chicago.
“There’s a tremendous cost in high-speed, and I think that’s what, across the country, people have realized,” Krom said.
Planning is still underway for a second daily passenger train that would run from St. Paul’s Union Depot to Chicago.
The train, which would travel at the conventional speed of 79 mph, would follow the same route as Amtrak’s Empire Builder. It would travel through Red Wing and Winona and across the midsection of Wisconsin before reaching Milwaukee and turning south to Chicago.
MnDOT is working with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to complete the first phase of the project, which involves weighing costs and potential infrastructure improvements.
The next phase of the project requires state funding to move forward. Rail planners need $4 million in capital funds to conduct an environmental analysis and generate a service development plan.
Requests for the money have gone unfunded over the past two years. The project could enter its final stages of engineering and construction once this phase is complete.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he thinks funding for the project’s second phase is more likely now that Democrats will control the House.
“I’m very committed to expanding passenger rail in Minnesota,” said Hornstein, who is tapped to chair the House transportation committee.
The second train could cost anywhere from $136 million to $168 million, Krom said. Minnesota and Wisconsin would be on the hook for the local investment, which could range from 20 percent to 50 percent. Federal grants would pay for the rest.
Kim Crockett, vice president and senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, questioned the need for a second train. She pointed to a decline in ridership over the past several years as proof that the demand isn’t there.
About 136,400 passengers boarded Amtrak trains in Minnesota last year, down from roughly 177,600 in 2012, according to data from the Rail Passengers Association.
“Why doesn’t MnDOT focus instead on relieving congestion in the Twin Cities with more lane miles so that travelers can get to the airport or wherever they need to go as safely and quickly as possible?” Crockett said.
Nelson, of All Aboard Minnesota, said roads and airways are already “pretty maxed out.” He argues that the additional train is more efficient because it would run on existing tracks.
“Passenger rail can take a much bigger and better role as part of a balanced transportation network throughout the state,” Nelson said.
If planning for the project moves forward, the second passenger train could be up and running as early as 2022, Krom said.