The Northern Lights Express is too expensive to justify construction.
For inhabitants of northern Minnesota hoping to be provided a quicker route into the Twin Cities, that fact is heart-breaking. Indeed, the initial promise of this 155-mile line, which would run between Minneapolis and Duluth, via Cambridge, Hinckley, Sandstone, and Superior, was exciting for its proponents: it would provide two-hour service along a corridor whose Amtrak operations were discontinued in 1985 and provide for increased economic competitiveness in parts of the state that have suffered as Minneapolis has grown.
The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, which has been pushing the train link since 2007, completed a preliminary study of the corridor last year, and claimed that the project could offer eight daily round trips by 2012 at the cost of just over $300 million — or up to $615 million using a more conservative estimate. New trains would run on a mostly double-tracked corridor at speeds up to 110 mph. With an estimated 3,000 daily passengers, the cost hardly met standards of efficiency even then. Yet the group has already managed to convince the federal government and a series of local bodies to hand over several million dollars in planning funds so far; the hope was that a quick start-up of this NLX project would mean a steady flow of funds and rapid completion. The line would, according to backers, generate $2 billion worth of investments in the affected areas.
But the news this week that state rail officials now estimate that the project will cost up to $1 billion to construct strikes a death blow onto the fantasies of its proponents. While there are certainly reasons to support improved passenger rail, Duluth’s relatively small metropolitan population — at less than 300,000 — means that the corridor will never be able to attract the ridership numbers to make this line more worthy of investment than the hundreds of other rail links in the United States that require significant upgrades. The fact that none of the cities between the Twin Cities and Lake Superior have populations of more than 10,000 people solidifies this argument and throws out the oft-mentioned idea that this project could evolve into a commuter line for Minneapolis’ northern suburbs.
With the Twin Cities’ Central and Southwest Corridor light rail lines in planning, and with the latter line still in need of additional funds — especially if it is to follow a more advantageous route — it would be outrageous to invest so much money in the NLX project. Minneapolis already has a test case for commuter rail with the Northstar line, which opened two weeks ago. It should should spend several years analyzing whether that project can be made into a valuable investment before it spends big on another underperforming corridor.
If NLX proponents suggest that their project would produce significant development in Minneapolis once rail operations commence, the stimulating nature of their proposal seems limited, especially compared to light rail. After all, while a passenger rail line covering a 155 mile distance replaces some air and some long-distance car travel, it can’t do much to transform the daily travel habits of most of its users. On the other hand, a local light rail line allows users to abandon their car use entirely, clearing the ground for transit-oriented development in a much more serious way.
Minnesota, like most states, lacks resources during this recessionary period. Handing over funds to the NLX would be squandering.
Image above: Northern Lights Express route map, from Northern Lights Express