The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger line between Duluth and Minneapolis has moved into the next phase of design and construction - and securing the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to make it a reality.
"The planning is done. There is no more planning that needs to be done. Now we are ready to build," said Frank Loetterle, project manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Rail Office.
MnDOT is in "extensive discussions" with line operator Amtrak and railroad track owner BNSF Railway, Loetterle said during a Monday meeting of community leaders. The capital operating funding also needs to be secured, he said. The line could be in operation about two and a half years after the final design process begins, he said.
Between $500 million and $600 million is needed to get the line up and running. Some federal funding is available, and projects like the NLX can be part of the conversation on transportation funding going forward, MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said after the meeting. He explained that all modes of infrastructure are in need of funding, but passenger rail is an efficient mode of transportation and is less expensive than adding lanes to freeways.
"They're an interconnected system, where it's cars, planes, trains, buses, bicycles - they work together and when we think about the future of mobility, we may fire on those high-density corridors as well as the connections to transit and I think this is very much the future of transportation," Zelle said.
Derrick James, governmental affairs senior officer at Amtrak, said at the meeting that projects such as the NLX are "the future for passenger rail." The Midwest regional rail system of higher-frequency passenger trains "stitch together the economy of the Midwest" and it comes down to the connectedness that young people and the business community seek, James said.
"If we want to keep the Twin Ports on the map, because we know we've got the quality of life here, to keep the young people, we also have to be competitive in connecting our universities, connecting our business community. A highly developed rail station with supportive zoning can be a catalyst for more economic development in the area around the station," James said. "It's not about the train, it's about our economy and we're building an economy that's open to everyone and is accessible for everyone."
The Federal Railroad Administration approved in February the Northern Lights Express service development plan, Loetterle said. Additionally, an assessment concluded in February that there weren't any significant environmental impacts.
The NLX line would run four daily trips between Duluth and Minneapolis, where it would connect to the Midwest rail system and national Amtrak system, Loetterle said. It would include stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior. The train would reach a speed of 90 miles per hour, but travel an average speed of more than 60 miles per hour, he said.
If the NLX comes to fruition, it could be used for a variety of reasons to travel between Duluth and the Twin Cities - college students getting to school, veterans going to the Minneapolis VA clinic, employees wanting to get work done while they travel and visitors going to entertainment and sporting events, Loetterle said.
"We're doing this so people have the opportunity to move between Duluth and the Twin Cities and all of the intermediate stations in a fast, safe, reliable manner," Loetterle said. "This is about a variety of things. I think it's important to remember ... this is about people and everything that people want to do."