State Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, remembers the days when trains regularly carried passengers from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports.
"Sometimes it brought relatives to visit, sometimes it brought tourists to the Great Lake," to watch ships glide under the Aerial Lift Bridge into the Duluth Harbor, she recounted recently during a committee meeting at the state Legislature.
But Amtrak shuttered the service in 1985. And pretty much ever since, rail supporters like Murphy have been working to bring it back.
Now, almost 40 years later, they hope that President Joe Biden's massive infrastructure proposal provides the funding jolt that’s needed to finally bring passenger rail back to Duluth.
"It is a huge game-changer,” said Ken Buehler, who chairs the technical advisory committee for the Northern Lights Express project. While local and state officials have completed all the preliminary planning work needed to build the rail line, the state legislature hasn’t provided funding to get it off the ground.
If the project is eventually built, four trains would run daily between the Depot in Duluth and Target Field in Minneapolis, with four stops along the way — in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis.
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Trains would travel up to 90 mph, and would complete the trip in about two and a half hours — about the same time it takes to drive. One-way fares are expected to cost around $35.
Buehler says the train is projected to carry about 700,000 passengers a year: tourists, students and commuters. Backers envision people who live in Duluth riding the train to the Twin Cities for work.
"Instead of driving and having windshield time wasted, they can work on the train,” said Buehler. “And this proposal by the Biden administration makes it all possible."
Biden's plan calls for $80 billion in funding for rail projects nationwide. Meanwhile, Amtrak's plan for the next 15 years calls for creating 30 new routes around the country — including the Northern Lights route to Duluth.
It’s still uncertain what will be introduced in Congress — and which rail projects, if any, Congress would eventually fund.
But “with this current proposal and Amtrak's hopes for expanding their system, there might be a possibility that the entire project would be funded through Amtrak or through the federal government,” said Frank Loetterle, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Northern Lights Express project manager.
“And that would be very good news for the supporters of the project.”
Typically, states are required to pay at least 20 percent in matching funds for passenger rail projects like the Northern Lights Express. With an estimated price tag of $500 to $600 million, the Minnesota legislature has so far balked at investing in the project.
But John Ongaro, government relations director for St. Louis County, one of several counties along the proposed route that’s been involved in planning the project, says Amtrak is proposing to pay for the entire cost of building the Northern Lights route.
"Right now, on paper, the Amtrak proposal is for 100 percent of the capital costs of getting these 30 new corridors [built] ... [to] be borne by the federal government,” Ongaro said.
Additionally, Amtrak is proposing that the federal government cover the first five years of operating the service, so local officials have time to promote it, and grow the number of passengers taking the train.
“It's those first few years that are the toughest,’ said Ongaro. “For the federal government to cover any operating subsidy, that is just a huge incentive ... to be able to hopefully get up and running.”
MnDOT estimates it would cost about $19 million annually to operate the rail service. The tickets that passengers buy are expected to eventually cover 60 percent or more of that cost. Still, state officials estimate it will require about $7 million in annual subsidies to operate.
“While it's exciting or enticing to have the first five years of operating costs paid,” said state Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, “it just pushes the bill down the road."
Koznick is a member of the House transportation committee. He said he understands the romantic appeal of having a passenger train coming to your town. But he said it needs to make financial sense.
Right now, he argues, a bigger priority for the state government is figuring out a way to pay to maintain the state’s existing infrastructure.
“It’s not fiscally responsible to keep adding more to our responsibilities when we're falling behind on our roads, bridges, buses and other obligations,” he said.
Congress will determine how much federal money the Northern Lights project ultimately receives — if any. And Republicans have already expressed concerns about Biden's infrastructure plan.
But Amtrak officials say if Congress does provide some funding for passenger rail projects, the Northern Lights project is well-positioned to be at the front of the line.
That’s because local and state officials have finalized all the environmental and pre-engineering work that’s required before the project could be built. The project “is as shovel ready as you can get,” said MnDOT’s Loetterle.
At the same time, many other project’s in Amtrak’s plan haven’t completed the same level of planning.
“You have a leg up,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson based in Chicago. “You have all those things — planning, cohesion and even some capital funds at NLX [Northern Lights Express] — that others just don’t have.”