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High-speed rail part of bigger rail picture

Area residents came to the Depot to learn about the new statewide rail plan, unveiled earlier this month. Photo provided by John Bray/MnDOT.

Folks who are for or against the proposed high-speed rail line from Duluth to the Twin Cities have until 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, to formally register those opinions with the state. That's when the comment period ends on the 2010 Minnesota Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan.

Completion of the data-driven, federally compliant State Rail Plan means that Minnesota will be eligible for federal funding contained in the 2008 U.S. Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act as well as federal stimulus plan dollars. Total 20-year capital costs for the entire plan are estimated at between $6.2 and $9.5 billion. These estimated costs break down to between $2.2 and $4.5 billion for freight, and $4 to $5.1 billion for passenger. Private rail investment is expected to cover three-fourths the total cost of freight improvements.

The federal government could pay for up to 80 percent of capital costs.

"We expect a 50 to 80 percent share by the federal government," said Dave Christianson, the project manager who has headed up the study for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Christianson was talking at an open house on the rail plan hosted by MnDOT at the Depot in downtown Duluth Jan. 11. The meeting was attended by more than 50 people.

Although the statewide plan involves both passenger and freight rail plans, it is the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) high-speed train that has sparked the most debate in the Twin Ports.

Following are highlights of the proposed passenger rail system:

• The NLX train to Duluth is part of a greater vision that will connect Midwestern cities with high-speed rail. A connection between the Twin Cities and Chicago (via Milwaukee, Wis.) is already under way. Outstate Minnesota cities that would connect via high-speed to the Twin Cities include Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud/Moorhead, Mankato and Red Wing/Winona.

• Stops between the Twin Cities and Duluth would likely include Foley (in Anoka County), Cambridge, Hinckley, Sandstone and Superior. Even with those stops, a modern high-speed train is expected to make the trip in just over two hours. Ridership between Duluth and Twin Cities is estimated at between 400,000 and 600,000 a year.

• The top speed of these new trains would range from 90 to 110 mph. By keeping the top speeds below 110 mph, the state can use existing tracks (where feasible) that would be shared by freight trains, rather than building all new track.

• With the exception of the Twin Cities to Chicago route, the outstate passenger train system is not expected to cover all operating costs with fares. However, the comprehensive study done on NLX says that, after 18 months, fare box revenue will cover operating expenses, both fixed and variable.

"The NLX line can be sustainable because of the distance we cover," said Ken Buehler, chair of the NLX technical committee.

At the meeting, supporters talked about the opportunities the rail improvements will bring to the Twin Ports, while opponents mostly questioned the high cost of passenger rail versus the actual need.

It is an expensive plan, Christianson said. However, he didn't think the costs to the state would be unreasonable considering the benefits from a modern rail system, as well as the amount of federal dollars available to invest in these projects.

For more information on NLX, visit http://www.northernlightsexpress.org. For more on the statewide rail plan, visit http://www.dot.state.mn.us/planning/railplan.

For a letter to the editor from State Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, see Budge opinion, on the right side of the Web page.

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