The case for passenger rail service
As a legislator, I travel to St. Paul each week listening to public radio. While it's a wonderful way to pass the time, I could be much more productive if I were riding on a train. What a perfect couple of hours to answer constituent emails, review legislation and prepare for my students at the University of Minnesota Duluth. When I arrive home, I'd have that much more time to spend with my family.
There are many people in various industries that regularly make the round trip. Besides increasing productivity, there are many other reasons to support passenger rail service from Duluth to the Twin Cities.
The Northern Lights Express (NLX) would have stops in Duluth, Superior, Hinckley, Cambridge, Coon Rapids and Minneapolis. A one-way trip would take about 2 1/2 hours, about as long as it takes me to drive to St. Paul when traffic is light, with one pit stop for gas.
Rail service is safer than traveling by car, particularly in bad weather. The passenger cars will be equipped with wireless Internet access and accommodations for meeting space. The NLX would run on existing tracks managed by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The train would travel at speeds up to 90 mph with four daily trips in each direction.
Rail service will attract businesses and individuals to our community. The NLX rail project estimates that 750,000 individuals will ride the train each year. This number is projected to increase to 1 million by 2040. The increase in economic activity from the NLX will translate into $355 million in tax revenue. Construction of the rail service alone will lead to 3,100 jobs.
Tourism to the North Shore will likely increase as transportation connecting passengers to their final destination will become easier with rental vehicles at the train stops and shared vehicle options likely arriving with rail service. The NLX project estimates that tourism revenue will increase by $378 million and that an additional $233 million will be created in wages related to tourism jobs over 40 years.
In addition to increased productivity, economic activity, development and tourism, the NLX will reduce costs to society. Over 40 years, it is estimated that the reduction in highway collisions and fatalities will save $165 million. The lowering of highway traffic and congestion will save $158 million in time spent on the road. The simple reduction of carbon dioxide emissions will save $47 million. With more devices and built-in electronics distracting drivers these days, the increased safety from using rail service is a significant selling point.
The benefits from the NLX rail service amount to approximately $1.4 billion over 40 years. The cost of constructing the NLX rail service is about $500 million. The price tag of the project has been cut in half from the original plan by accepting slower speeds and using existing tracks. This cost reduction has helped move the project forward. It is now on the long-term work plan for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The NLX will be funded from ticket sales and public dollars. I believe other sources of revenue can be found, such as hauling mail and other small, packaged goods on a mail car since Duluth lost the U.S. Postal Service distribution center.
NLX rail has requested $4 million in state bonding to finalize the engineering phase of the project. The NLX bonding bill (HF 3428/SF 3176) was presented in the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee on April 18. Please contact your local state legislators and U.S. representatives and senators to share your thoughts on the project.
Public funding for passenger rail service should not be viewed any differently than funding for roads, bridges and other infrastructure used to move people and goods. If we do not invest in public transportation connecting Duluth to larger cities, I fear our community will be at a significant disadvantage. Recall what happened to towns that were stops on the original railroad lines across the country. If you need proof of economic development along public transit routes, ride the green line from St. Paul to Minneapolis.
Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7A in the Minnesota House. She can be reached at (651) 296-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.