Northern Lights Express: On Track or Going Nowhere Fast?

State and local officials are all systems go even as Congress defunds “high speed” rail

From the looks of the slick taxpayer-funded website, you’d think it’s full speed ahead for the  Northern Lights Express (NLX), the proposed passenger rail line from the Twin Cities to Duluth.  As one of six passenger rail lines for Minnesota, an air of inevitability often seems to surround the controversial line estimated to cost between $650 million and one billion dollars.  Yet the route to Duluth runs through Washington with a Congress at a crossroads and an inclination toward derailing high-speed rail projects. 

The 155 mile rail route is apparently “igniting imaginations around Minnesota and the nation,” according to the website.  The upbeat storyline states that NLX will spur $2 billion in economic development. Indeed, they project anywhere from 400,000-800,000 plus passengers a year might get on board. The website also claims the project would “encourage” 13,800 jobs, an evidently new metric of employment growth.

Nothing seemingly slows NLX down.  Not even a controversial 2010 “Benefit Cost Analysis” draft report that concluded the “Twin Cities-Duluth HSR (High Speed Rail) Corridor has a low benefit-cost ratio.”  Taxpayers would realize a return of just 27-35 cents in benefits for every government dollar spent on NLX, according to the study.

Upon release of the cost-benefit report, even supporters began writing the line’s obituary.  State officials, however, rejected the draft report “on the basis of conflicting consultant advice and modeling concerning the cost and benefits of NLX,” said Dave Christianson, MnDOT’s rail director. Interestingly, the report was scrubbed from the MnDOT website .

A subsequent MnDOT report estimates NLX could require an operating subsidy as high as $37-$83 per passenger to meet the line’s $35-45 million annual operating and maintenance costs.  Under that scenario, taxpayers would underwrite 66-79 percent of the cost of every ride.  

NLX officials disputed many of this report’s assumptions and conclusions, as well. They produced a “functional analysis” showing NLX would break even by 2023 and eventually become profitable.

The Federal Rail Administration (FRA) recently approved the final NLX route, clearing the way to start spending $8 million in planning grants next year.  “The approval of the preferred  route for this project is another step toward improving travel for Minnesotans and laying the groundwork to address our state’s transportation needs in the future,” according to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Just last week, a coalition of elected local officials from six counties, two cities and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, signed an agreement giving MnDOT most of the responsibility for implementing the NLX plan.  In all, some $13 million in funding has been committed to the project, according to MnDOT.

Yet it’s far from all systems go—not only for NLX, but for “high speed” rail projects nationwide. Whether NLX stays on track depends upon receiving up to 80 percent of capital costs from the federal government. 

While the Obama Administration continues to request billions for rail funding, Congress has pulled the equivalent of the taxpayer’s emergency stop cord, which may signal the end of the line for NLX. 

Eighth District Congressman Chip Cravaack, who represents the area covering most of the NLX route, opposes the project.  “The wisest course of action for us is to not spend money on a venture that can't pay for itself. Instead, we must first attend to the crumbling roads, the bridges in urgent need of repair and the incomplete highway projects that we have throughout the state,” Cravaack wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed

NLX Alliance Chairman Steve Raukar fired back in an op-ed of his own, faulting Cravaack for not supporting the transit project.  In a letter to the congressman, Raukar pleaded with Cravaack to “request NLX be authorized for federal rail capital funds in the success to SAFTEA-LU” insisting such designation does not constitute “an earmark”.

Yet the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has zeroed out “high speed” rail funding in their annual appropriations bill.  Meantime, the Democratic-run Senate Appropriations Committee also zeroed out “high speed” rail, adding just $100 million in an amendment that may or may not survive conference committee negotiations with the House.

However, some previously appropriated rail funds remain in the federal pipeline.  Sources say NLX advocates also hold out hope of being designated as a possible federal demonstration rail project. 

“The reduction in HSR appropriations won’t have an immediate impact on NLX, until next phase of development is reached, about 2013-14,” Christianson said in an email. “Of course, it doesn’t bode well for investment in a high speed rail network anywhere in the U.S.”

Otherwise, it may be up to individual states to fund the building of “high speed” rail service.  NLX proponents say they still hope to receive $13 million of MnDOT’s rail request being readied for a potential 2012 state bonding bill.      

The Northstar Amtrak line that previously ran on the same route as NLX shut down on Easter Day, 1985 due to lack of ridership.  It remains to be seen whether that failed Amtrak route will be resurrected or not.


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