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Slow Going For Minnesota Fast Rail

September 23, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

More than 2 million people a year board flights between the Twin Cities and Chicago, making that air corridor the busiest in the Midwest. Not coincidentally, Minneapolis-St. Paul is on track to surpass Detroit - it probably already has done so - as the region's second largest metropolitan economy.

In 2001, Detroit's metro economic output was $183 billion, compared with our $142 billion. By 2008, the most recent year for which figures from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis are available, the gap had been closed to $200 billion for Detroit, $193 billion for the Twin Cities. Auto industry bankruptcies practically assure that Minneapolis-St. Paul will be No. 2 in the Midwest behind only Chicago when 2009 statistics come out.

All of our air travel to the region's economic hub on Lake Michigan both reflects the Twin Cities' surge and is a major contributor to it. But there might be a better way of connecting Minnesotans to the Windy City, a way that's more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and so devoid of airport and parking hassles that it's preferred over airline travel by four out of five people who have tried it.

We're talking fast, frequent, modern intercity passenger trains, a staple in much of the developed world but absent from Minnesota for the past 40 years. Sure, there's an Amtrak train to Chicago now, but a one-way ticket will cost you as much as some round trips by air and deliver your more than 8 hours later, longer than it takes to drive. And there's just one train a day, the 7:50 a.m. out of St. Paul.

Improvements - six round trips a day, a 2-1/2-hour drop in travel time, state-of-the-art rolling stock -- may be on the way, thanks to Washington's renewed focus on passenger rail. But this has been a dream of Minnesota leaders across the political spectrum for more than a decade with little progress made, and new obstacles are looming.

Conservative office-seekers in Wisconsin are vowing to send back an $810 million federal grant to build fast rail from Milwaukee to Madison, a link that's indispensable for Minnesota's connection to Chicago. Never mind that 100 times more travelers choose existing slow rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago than go by air.

Meanwhile, some railroads (none in Minnesota so far) are resisting money-making deals to put fast passenger trains on their right of way. They fear that increased passenger service would clog the tracks and cut into their even more lucrative freight business.

Notwithstanding Rochester's lobbying for a new rail link to the Twin Cities, existing tracks through either La Crosse or Eau Claire in western Wisconsin represent Minnesota's best hope for 21st century passenger rail service in most of our lifetimes. Those routes would limit train speeds to 110 miles per hour, up from a maximum of 79 m.p.h. now, but the brand-new right of way needed to go even faster faces steep costs and NIMBY political obstruction. If you don't believe it, look no further than the dueling controversies in Rochester itself over more and longer coal trains through the city and the equally unpopular alternative of new tracks around it.

To be sure, even retrofitting railroads for fast passenger service could cost hundreds of millions of dollars for the Minnesota portion of the route alone. The good news is that a newly rail-oriented federal government is stepping up to shoulder most of the load. And it's not as if continuing to do nothing will mean that money won't be spent on other, already overcrowded transportation modes.

A new report from the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund projects that a fully developed eight-state Midwest fast passenger rail system would create 57,000 permanent jobs in addition to 15,200 jobs building it out over 10 years. Total economic benefits are projected at $23 billion, half again more than the full system cost. By 2020 the trains would reduce car trips by 5.1 million and plane trips by 1.3 million each year. This means significant cuts in fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, plus big gains in comfort, convenience and wireless productivity for the travelers.

Yes, we can keep doing what we've been doing for four decades, but it won't be cost-free. The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to spend $15 billion on trunk highways over the next two decades, still falling $50 billion short of what it needs to meet its goals for congestion-busting, safety and pavement quality. A 20-year expansion plan for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where 8 percent of the passengers are headed to Chicago, is estimated to cost up to $2.4 billion.

Numbers like that make investments in fast intercity rail look cheap. Minnesota has a comprehensive rail plan to re-establish passenger service to most of its regional centers over 20 years, with good access for 85 percent of the state's residents. But the full success of the plan depends first and foremost on getting the trains running to Minnesota's No. 1 destination - Chicago.

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