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Reconnecting Minnesota: The Case for an Intercity Passenger Rail System

October 15, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow & Mick Conlan, Graduate Research Fellow

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How did the flood of immigrants who built Minnesota in the 1800s get here? Few came by riverboat or covered wagon. Most of them rode the railroad.

In our time, the airplane and automobile have largely supplanted passenger trains for long- and medium-distance transportation. But myriad forces are now combining to usher in a new era of fast, economical, convenient and comfortable cross-country travel by rail. If Minnesota is to regain its fast-disappearing prosperity, it dare not miss an historic opportunity to get on board and join a growing national trend back to the future - a future when a region's economic fortunes will reflect its embrace of modern intercity rail connectivity.

A recent federal study has mapped out four proposed high-speed rail lines in Minnesota. Congress last week approved by veto-proof majorities greatly broadened passenger rail funding  for which a Minnesota route could be among the first in line. Local officials across the state are gathering support and initiating planning to reestablish long-lost passenger train service in their communities. And while high fuel prices plus freeway and airport congestion are driving down travel by car and plane, Amtrak's passenger counts are soaring above 2007's record levels.

It adds up to a watershed moment for American transportation policy, a chance for elected officials from Washington, D.C., to City Hall to steer the nation toward safer, more efficient and environmentally sound means of mobility.

An important catalyst in this movement is a gathering consensus that the right mobility investments will spur job growth in both the short and long terms. Proposed Minneapolis-Duluth high-speed rail service alone is projected to add 13,778 jobs, $617 million in annual income and $1.8 billion in increased property values to Minnesota's economy.

A federal advisory group has concluded that the coming decades will be a "time to rebuild a vibrant intercity passenger rail network." It called for an initial $5 billion in annual funding nationwide (about two weeks of U.S. spending in Iraq), with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the capital costs - the same formula as for U.S. and Interstate highways.

Minnesotans broadly support this vision. In a February 2008 poll commissioned by Minnesota 2020, 72 percent of respondents agreed that "the state should be exploring more ways to expand and promote regional rail services as a means of affordable and efficient transportation.

Local leaders in Minnesota are listening. They are advancing plans for several passenger rail routes:

  • Locally funded preliminary studies are under way for the Northern Lights Express, a proposed service of up to 16 daily 110-miles per hour trains between Minneapolis and Duluth.
  • Minnesota is a member of the Midwest Regional Rail System, a 12-year-old consortium of nine states planning and promoting a 3,000-mile high-speed passenger rail system stretching from Cleveland to Omaha and Green Bay to Kansas City. Minnesota's portion extends 125 miles from St. Paul's Union Depot to La Crescent, a route that would continue through La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee to Chicago.
  • In Albert Lea, the City Council and Freeborn County Board have unanimously endorsed the concept of a high-speed rail line along Interstate Hwy. 35 between Des Moines, Iowa, and the Twin Cities.
  • Bipartisan legislators have launched an initiative to link Minneapolis and Willmar via a corridor they have dubbed the Little Crow Transit Way.
  • In Rochester, elected officials, the Mayo Clinic and the local Chamber of Commerce are pressing for passenger rail connections to the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Minnesota could have even more of a head start in these directions but for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's line-item vetoes this year of $6 million in state borrowing for planning of rail lines to Chicago, Duluth and Rochester. He axed another $5.75 million passed by legislative supermajorities for development of Twin Cities rapid bus and rail transit facilities, which are key complements to intercity rail service.  

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