Northlanders express disappointment with passenger rail vote
Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth: "People want choices. They don’t want to be tied down to having to use their cars, with no other options.”
DULUTH — Advocates of passenger rail between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities expressed dismay this week following a Republican vote to prohibit state funding for the project.
All 34 Senate Republicans voted to pass an amendment Monday onto the body’s transportation bill that denies the Minnesota Department of Transportation from spending on the projected $450 million Northern Lights Express. The measure passed 34-31.
“I’m extremely disappointed in my Republican colleagues, especially those whose communities stand to benefit, for their lack of support for Northern Lights Express passenger rail,” said Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, in a statement late Monday.
“This is a bipartisan effort up north,” she added. “People want choices. They don’t want to be tied down to having to use their cars, with no other options.”
Republicans’ disdain for the project was forecast in February, when Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, rejected the project in an interview with the News Tribune.
“I don’t see why people would use it,” Rarick said then. “It’s going to take longer than a bus or any other transportation, and I don’t see that the cost is going to be worth the usage.”
Northern Lights Express, dubbed "NLX" by supporters, has been long-planned and proponents call it the most shovel-ready passenger rail project in the country.
"We're disappointed, of course," said Bob Manzoline, executive director for the St. Louis and Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority and a member of the alliance of cities along the route lobbying to build Northern Lights Express.
"Those opposing made their statement," he added. "I'm not quite sure why they don't think rail is the right thing for Minnesota."
President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021 figured to give the project access to federal funding, but not before the state unlocks those funds with a financial commitment of its own.
The Democratic-led Minnesota House of Representatives passed $85 million in state funding. Reps. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, and Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, authored the House bill supporting the project. Gov. Tim Walz also supports NLX in his budget proposal.
The project would update 152 miles of existing BNSF track so that it could be used to carry the passenger train projected to reach speeds up to 90 mph.
Planned stops would fall between Target Field Station in Minneapolis and the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth, with additional stations in Superior, Hinckley, Cambridge and Coon Rapids.
Rail sidings would be built along the route to allow freight traffic to carry through as the passenger train pulled off to the side.
National passenger rail provider Amtrak has already committed to operate the service, while BNSF has not signed on and won’t, organizers have said, until the project is fully funded.
McEwen noted the example of how passenger rail would allow military service veterans in the north to access the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, while also giving everybody more choices.
“All of the potential benefits were jeopardized this afternoon by Republicans’ votes to cut funding for this critical project,” McEwen said. “Their votes are out of line with the broad support we see for this project in our communities.”
McEwen’s news release condemning her colleagues highlighted the Republicans along the route who voted against support, including Rarick and Sens. Mark Koran, of North Branch, Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, and Roger Chamberlain, of Lino Lakes.
McEwen also noted support for the project from numerous trade unions, business groups, nonprofits and Minnesota colleges, including the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, Lake Superior College and both the University of Minnesota Duluth and University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Manzoline said he hoped the governor and House could persuade senators to vote in favor of support in a final transportation bill before the end of session later this spring.
"We've done our homework and given all the information we can on the project," he said. "It's not dead, not until the end of session."