Duluth ponders commuter rail

All Aboard
Some of the people involved in the discussion boarded a train in the Duluth Depot train museum.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

The last time scheduled passenger service reached Duluth was the spring of 1985. Gas cost less than $1 a gallon, and the most popular movie was "Back to the Future."

Ken Buehler
Ken Buehler directs the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the Duluth Depot
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

But Duluth has changed a lot since then and so have the forces that can make or break rail service, according to Ken Buehler.

"There wasn't the congestion on I-35 you have today," says Buehler, director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the Duluth Depot. "There wasn't a casino in Hinkley that attracts five million people a year, and Duluth wasn't the tourist destination that it is today. In 1985 Canal Park was a Grandma's Restaurant and a junkyard, and the Lake Walk didn't exist."

Even more importantly, he says, today's laptop computers and cell phones mean a traveler can work during the two-and-a-half-hour train trip from Duluth to downtown Minneapolis.

Proponents say the stars are lining up for commuter rail between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

"In 1985 Canal Park was a Grandmas Restaurant and a junkyard, and the lakewalk didn't exist."

A key St. Louis County body, the St. Louis County Economic Development Committee, has approved a share of a comprehensive feasibility study. Other partners include the St. Louis and Lake County Regional Railroad Authority, the city of Duluth, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Anoka and Hennepin counties.

A preliminary study six years ago found the project practical in time, according to consultant Elwyn Tinklenberg.

"What it discovered was that if you could connect to the Twin Cities -- to the depot in St. Paul as well Minneapolis -- and if you could increase the speed to that 79-, 80-mile-an-hour level, that you could compete effectively with the automobile; that there would be the kind of ridership that would justify improving the service, or re-establishing the service, and that you could do it all at a reasonable cost," says Elwyn Tinklenberg, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation under Jesse Ventura.

Budd Car
The Duluth and North Shore Scenic Railroad's Budd car was used for decades for commuter service in the Chicago area. It's self-propelled, with a diesel engine in the middle of the car and operating controls on both ends. The car is named for its manufacturer, The Budd Company of Troy, Michigan. The proposed Duluth to Twin Cities train would be a conventional train with passenger coaches.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Now those connections are coming into place with new Twin Cities train lines. Tinklenberg says the original study found it would take $89 million to purchase a train and upgrade track that roughly parallels Interstate 35.

"For a 150-mile line,(that)is a real bargain, for the kind of readership that this line could carry," Tinklenberg says.

Compare that to Northstar Line, which cost some $300 million, or the Hiawatha Line, which is coming in at more than $800 million, and the Central Corridor, which is estimated over $1 billion. Each line is much shorter than the Duluth-to-Minneapolis rail.

Budd Car interior
The Budd car was built for commuter service. This car was one of the first 10 of its kind built by the Budd Company in 1950. Similar cars are still in commuter service in places like Dallas-Fort Worth. A Budd car could link a local Duluth commuter line to the Duluth to Minneapolis rail line.
MPR Photo

And, proponents say, the forces have lined up right in Washington. According to John Ongaro, with St. Louis County, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar isn't just a supporter; the project was his idea.

"We're in a wonderful position here in Minnesota, and especially in Northeastern Minnesota, because our congressman, from this congressional district, chairs that powerful House Transportation Committee," says Ongaro, director of St. Louis County intergovernmental affairs. "And, as a result, he can make things happen in Washington for us. We also have Congressman Obey, across the bridge, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee."

Federal money would be key. It's not known whether the trains would be run by a private company or by Amtrak, but if it's Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Authority would pick up half of any necessary subsidy.

Start-up costs would typically be shared 50 percent by the federal government, with a 50-percent local match. But that's no slam dunk, according to consultant Elwyn Tinklenberg.

"The real challenge is going to be: is there going to be the money here in Minnesota to match the federal dollars, to help move these and other transportation projects along?" Tinklenberg says.

St. Louis County is expected to approve its share of the feasibility study within weeks. Hennepin County Commissioners have indicated a willingness to fill the gap and get the $350,000 study underway early next year. The study will take eight months. If all the pieces fall into place, proponents say, trains could be rolling between Duluth and the Twin Cities in three years.

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