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New MnDOT plan would slash cost of Mpls.-Duluth high-speed rail

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Proposed rail project
The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would connect Minneapolis and Duluth. Stops along the way would include Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis.
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Transportation

Advocates of a proposed high-speed rail line between Duluth and Minneapolis say the cost to build the project has been cut nearly in half. 

Previous estimates to build the Northern Lights Express passenger rail service approached $1 billion. Now, the Minnesota Department of Transportation says it will cost between $500 million and $600 million. 

The savings would come by dropping the train's top speed from 110 mph to 90 mph and by cutting the number of daily trains from eight to four, said MnDOT's Frank Loetterle, the project's manager. The changes would eliminate the need to build an additional track and lessen the number of places where freight trains would have to move out of the passenger train's way, he added.

"What we found is that we can get almost the same amount of ridership, but we cut the capital costs significantly," he said.

Amtrak service connecting Minneapolis and Duluth ended in 1985. Local governments created the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance in 2007 to revive rail service between the two cities. 

MnDOT projects the line connecting Target Field in Minneapolis with the downtown Duluth depot would draw about 700,000 riders a year beginning in 2020. Total travel time would be two and a half hours, comparable with a car. Projected fares are expected to cost between $25 and $30, Loetterle said. 

Stops along the way would include Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis. Anoka County and some other local governments along the proposed route have pulled out of the partnership, fearing cost overruns. 

The federal government is expected to pick up 80 percent of the eventual price tag to build the line. Annual operating costs are currently estimated at $17.5 million for the first five years. Revenue from fares are expected to cover most of the cost.