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Mixed News for Minnesota’s Fast Passenger Rail

December 20, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Even though more passengers rode trains in a single day recently than ever before in Amtrak’s 40-year history, prospects for Minnesotans getting 21st century intercity rail service have taken a turn for the worse.

That’s a shame at a time when consumer demand for train travel is rising just as Washington has reversed years of neglect toward passenger rail.

Minnesota’s hopes for fast, convenient, comfortable, environmentally friendly and efficient passenger trains are being buffeted by fickle political winds beyond our borders and, perhaps, over-ambitious local boosterism within them.

Sadly, that combination could put the kibosh on a rail initiative that would carry up to 2.4 million passengers a year between the Twin Cities and Chicago, create 11,000 construction and operations jobs and return $2 to $3 in traveler benefits for every public dollar invested.

Those are the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s projections for our leg of the proposed Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail network, a distant dream of nine heartland states since the 1990s. Just the other day it seemed to be on a fast track to reality. Now the rails are stacked with blockades.

  • Conservative governors-elect in Ohio and Wisconsin have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in federal passenger rail funds back to Washington to be redistributed to other states. Retrenchment in Wisconsin, once a pioneer in fast rail planning under Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson, could leave Minnesota marooned without improved train service competing for the 10 million annual travelers on all modes between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Old, slow and infrequent Amtrak trains attract less than 1 percent of that market now.
  • Making matters worse, a new state study that projected glowing returns for upgraded Twin Cities-Chicago service also found that most other Minnesota passenger rail proposals wouldn’t come close to justifying their investment, returning less than 45 cents on the dollar. High development costs and low predicted ridership bode ill for connecting Mankato, Fargo-Moorhead and even Duluth and Rochester to the Twin Cities with fast trains.
  • The only other Minnesota rail proposal that shows any promise in MnDOT’s study is extending the Northstar commuter line to St. Cloud. But recession-plagued low ridership in the first year of service on Northstar Phase I from Minneapolis to Big Lake has prompted the project’s local sponsors to withdraw applications to finance expansion, at least for now.

Promoters of the low-ranked rail proposals are crying foul. Boosters in Duluth say the state study greatly overestimated startup costs, disregarded ticket sales and low-balled gasoline prices at $2.50 a gallon through 2030 (higher gas prices would boost train ridership; so would more road and air congestion than the study assumed).

But even an earlier study commissioned by supporters rated the project, dubbed the Northern Lights Express (NLX), as little more than a break-even proposition. MnDOT’s study projected traveler benefits from the project of as little as 29 cents on the dollar – including time savings, relief for congested and deteriorating roadways, improved safety and reduced fuel use and emissions. Economic development benefits were not considered, said MnDOT’s Dave Christianson.

The election defeat of veteran U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, an NLX supporter and chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, by conservative rail critic Chip Cravaack further dims the project’s prospects.

Also dealt a blow by the state report was Rochester’s hopes for a passenger rail link to the Twin Cities, which would pay back as little as 34 cents for every dollar of the $1 billion construction cost. The Twin Cities route to Chicago via existing right-of-way along the Mississippi River would do at least six times better, according to the MnDOT study.

Laura Kliewer, executive director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, said all the proposed routes were assessed in isolation in the MnDOT study conducted by Cambridge Systematics Inc., a prominent transportation consulting firm. Each would perform better as part of a built-out passenger rail network across the state, according to both Kliewer and Christianson.

In addition, Christianson said the strong projected benefits of the Twin Cities-Chicago route “can justify cross-subsidizing the feeder branches with profits from the core route, which in turn increases total ridership in the extended system.”

Network effects also figure in the continuing debate over Wisconsin’s rejection, at least for now, of $810 million of federal funds to link Milwaukee and Madison by fast passenger rail. Standing alone, that corridor would likely need operating subsidies that conservative Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker opposes. But Kliewer said connections to Chicago and the Twin Cities would significantly boost ridership on the Milwaukee-Madison leg, reducing or eliminating operating losses.

That means there’s still a good argument for the Badger State to reconsider and get the project back on track. It’s possible that some of Wisconsin’s spurned federal rail money could find its way back to the Milwaukee-Madison route, Kliewer said.

But it’s no surprise that conservatives such as Walker have been able to woo a predominantly car-driving electorate with disdain for passenger rail improvements. The nation’s current train service is so slow, outdated and sparsely developed that few voters have ever tried it. Without the experience of good alternatives, they can reasonably conclude that more roads are the only path to better mobility.

On the contrary, fast, modern trains can do that for riders and drivers alike.

“Just like the roads and interstates, and our air system, this is a matter of mobility and competitiveness, both for our region and for the country as a whole,” MnDOT’s Christianson said. “Without public policies and financial support, neither of these other systems would have been developed to the high levels taken for granted today.”

Meanwhile, MnDOT, its Wisconsin counterpart and the Federal Railroad Administration are just beginning long-range studies to select a preferred fast rail route from the Twin Cities to … (?!?) Milwaukee -- which already has popular, frequent service to Chicago. In the running are 25 existing rail corridors through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Sifting through all those possibilities won’t be done until mid-2012. At that time, Minnesota might seek to advance an alternate Chicago connection through Iowa “if there is still opposition to moving forward from the Wisconsin governor’s office,” said MnDOT’s Dan Krom.

Iowa is already building a $230 million fast passenger rail link between the Quad Cities and Iowa City, and environmental studies are completed to extend the line through northern Illinois to Chicago. Minnesota might be able to connect with that route, Krom said.

Whatever pans out over the next 18 months, it’s clear that our hopes for 21st century passenger rail service rest squarely on a good connection to the Midwest’s economic hub in Chicago. Once that hands-down winner for travelers is in place, we can decide if other routes in Minnesota are worth the investment.

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