Members of the Northern Lights Express Alliance hope to convince veterans that the proposed passenger rail line will benefit them, and recruit them to help get the $550 million project built. 

The Northern Lights Express is a proposed passenger rail train from the Twin Cities to Duluth. Current plans are for a 152 mile line with stops in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Duluth/Superior. Rail advocates have been pushing for the project for more than 12 years. 

NLX officials noted that current practice for transportation from greater Minnesota to the VA hospital requires drivers, volunteers, carpools “... and long days spent in the car or waiting for other veterans. Sometimes, there’s no room for the spouse to ride along. NLX can address these issues.”

NLX Alliance officials plan to engage with up to 50 veterans organizations along the NLX corridor to survey interest in passenger rail for veterans, and offer speakers to advocate for the project. 

Budgetary issues

The NLX Alliance has approved a budget of $79,280 for 2021. The St. Louis & Lake Rail Authority will pay $20,295, the City of Minneapolis will pay $16,425, the City of Duluth will pay $13,500, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will pay $12,510, the City of Superior will pay $7,020 and the City of Sandstone will pay $1,530.

The St. Lous and Lake Counties Regionl Railroad Authority will reimburse the NLX Alliance $2,000 per month to pay for lobbying with the legislature and congress the the Costin Group.

• Attorney Steven C. Fecker proposed to provide legal services for the NLX Alliance for 2021 at $295 per hour, unchanged from 2020, subject to a monthly minimum of $1,250. 

“I have enjoyed working on the NLX Project for the last 13 years and look forward to working with the Alliance and staff in 2021,” Fecker wrote.

• Media consultant Jill Brown will be paid $96 per hour for her services to the NLX Alliance. 

Correspondence

• In a letter to  Emily Larson, the mayor of Duluth, NLX offficials asserted that Amtrak has announced that NLX and the second train to Chicago from St. Paul are tied among “its highest priorities,” and that Amtrak is ready to financially support both projects. 

“We believe 2021 will be the beginning of a huge resurgence in passenger rail,” they wrote. “As America grows green, trains have the lowest carbon footprint of any form of transportation other than ships... President Elect Biden’s promise of more support for passenger rail, and Pete Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary, shows an administration that will be very pro rail... If (when) there is an infrastructure initiative from Washington DC, NLX remains one of only a few real shovel ready projects in the country.”

• NLX officials wrote a letter to Deb DeLuca, the executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.  The letter noted that the state legislature passed a bonding bill containing $3 million for repairs to the Grassy Point Draw Bridge between Duluth and Superior. 

“This bridge is crucial to freight rail service here in the Twin Ports,” the letter stated. “While the immediate effects are improving the reliability of this crucial span for freight service, long term this will also benefit the Northern Lights Express passenger rail project. We are building for the future, a future that includes the return of passenger trains running between Duluth/Superior and Minneapolis over the Grassy Point Draw.”

The letter claimed that momentum created by this funding is helping the NLX project move forward: “With a new administration in Washington D.C., that is very favorable to Amtrak and passenger rail, a brighter future, with NLX in it, just got that much closer.”

• NLX officials also wrote letters to Jeff Lunde, Chris LaTondresse and Kevin Anderson, all newly-elected Hennepin County commissioners, congratulation them on their new roles and requesting a meeting with each of them. “We’re very close to realizing the vision of higher speed rail service between the state’s two largest regions, the Twin Cities and Duluth/Superior,” the letter read.

What is the NLX? The Northern Lights Express is a proposed passenger rail train from the Twin Cities to Duluth. Current plans are for a 152 mile line with stops in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Duluth/Superior.

How fast will it go? The top possible speed for the NLX is 90 mph, but the average speed for the total route is 60 mph.

Would it be faster than traveling by car? Travel time is now estimated at 2 hours 30 minutes from Duluth to Minneapolis. According to Google Maps, a trip from Duluth to Minneapolis by car down I-35 takes 2 hours 17 minutes.

What is the ‘Hinckley Loop’? The Hinckley Loop is proposed new-built track off the existing Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) line which would take NLX directly to Grand Casino Hinckley. A 2015 ridership study indicated that the train would be used by 50,000 more riders per year if it were routed directly to the casino rather than stopping in the City of Hinckley, but planners assert that this is not enough to offset the estimated $81+million extra cost, and current plans are for a station to be located in downtown Hinckley. 

Who is running the NLX? Several groups are involved. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) took charge of NLX project planning in 2013. The NLX Alliance is a group which lobbies for the project and makes recommendations to MnDOT. BNSF owns the rail line. The Federal Rail Authority has authorized the project. 

Is Pine County involved in NLX? Pine County has been a member of the NLX Alliance since 2007 and paid over $130,000 in dues. In 2013, Pine County board members stopped paying dues, but Pine County was allowed to remain a non-voting member of the NLX Alliance.

Will there be a stop in Pine City? No. The closest proposed station is in Hinckley or Grand Casino Hinckley, 15 miles north. 

Will there be a stop in Sandstone? No regular station stop is planned for Sandstone. The City of Sandstone has asked for a train cleaning station to be built in the city, but other sites are being considered for a possible train cleaning station, and no decision has been made.

How much would NLX cost to build? Who would pay?  With the reduced speed proposal made public in December 2015, the cost estimates to build the train have come down from $1 billion to $500-$600 million.  NLX officials say the federal government would cover up to 80 percent of the cost, while state and local funds would cover the remainder.

How much would tickets cost? The cost for a single ticket from Duluth to Minneapolis is estimated at $32. 

Would there be ongoing costs for taxpayers? NLX officials have gone on the record saying the train would likely require an ongoing taxpayer subsidy of $5 million per year to operate. NLX supporters claim the train would create economic benefits to offset these costs.  – Staff report

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