Feds approve route for Duluth-Twin Cities high-speed rail

AFTERNOON EDITION

How fast do you want to get to Duluth? Or vice versa? John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune reports: “The Federal Rail Administration has approved a route for the Northern Lights Express passenger train proposed between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities. The 155-mile route approved — the one preferred by promoters of the passenger train — would use existing BNSF Railway track from Duluth to Minneapolis along the Interstate 35 and Minnesota Highway 65 corridors. The approval was announced Wednesday at the regular meeting of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance that oversees efforts for the proposed high-speed train. Stations for the 110 mph train could be in Duluth, Superior, Sandstone, Hinckley, Cambridge, Coon Rapids and Minneapolis. … The Northern Lights Express in May received a $5 million federal grant and $3 million from the state that will pay for that engineering work to start. Additional Federal Rail Administration money would be needed for construction and to purchase trains, with the total project cost estimated to be up to $750 million. The state and local governments may have to pay up to 20 percent of the cost, plus costs for new or improved stations.”

Also in the News Tribune, an activist’s response to Excelsior Energy’s response to the paper’s series on Excelsior’s remarkably unproductive use of public money. Says Charlotte Neigh: “The response from Excelsior Energy’s co-CEOs to the News Tribune’s investigative reports of Aug. 21 and Aug. 22 and to the newspaper’s editorial on Aug. 23 did not answer questions. The response, published Aug. 24, merely rehashed old selling points that brought Excelsior $40 million of public money while it failed to attract private investors or a customer for its power. After 10 years, the prospects of achieving these indispensable components appear dimmer than ever. … Excelsior co-CEO Tom Micheletti blamed unfortunate timing and the recession for the company’s shortcomings so far, ignoring that Excelsior was unable to attract private financing as far back as 2002 when it failed to raise the private money required by a $1.5 million loan agreement. In waiving this requirement in 2004, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board acknowledged, ‘The company was not able to attract equity investors or in-kind contributions.’ Excelsior’s response in the News Tribune blamed regulations and permitting requirements for costs and delays. But, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Excelsior has never completed its initial 2006 air permit application or made required updates.”

Would you like marinara or sticker-shock linguini? James McPherson of the AP writes: “Consumers are paying more for pasta after heavy spring rain and record flooding prevented planting on more than 1 million acres in one of the nation’s best durum wheat-growing areas. North Dakota typically grows nearly three-fourths of the nation’s durum, and its crop is prized for its golden color and high protein. Pasta makers say the semolina flour made from North Dakota durum produces noodles that are among the world’s best. This year’s crop, however, is expected to be only about 24.6 million bushels, or about two-fifths of last year’s.”

The state’s budget “solution” also means … no dough for the sleek new bus lanes and facilities down Cedar Avenue. Katie Humphrey of the Strib says: “A $112 million rapid busway on Cedar Avenue in the southern suburbs, nearly a decade in the making, suddenly doesn’t have the money to pay for bus service once it opens. The Metropolitan Council recently told Dakota County that funding to operate the buses was a casualty of the state budget deal. With construction well underway and new transit stations already dotting the corridor, officials are now scrambling to find a source of about $1 million annually to operate the transit line, hailed as a cheaper alternative to light rail. … Among the options being floated: using county property tax money, asking for more of the transit-dedicated sales tax funds and pushing the Met Council to reignite discussion of a 25-cent fare increase for metro buses and trains that could bring in millions of dollars. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the multi-county group that doles out transit sales-tax funds, blames Republican legislators for the sudden search for operating money that transit planners were banking on.” I mean, there’s always property tax money, right?
 
A Duluth News Tribune story gets into the state’s determination to extract royalties from copper, nickel and gold mining. “[T]he official state policy is that Minnesota wants to see the same kind of royalties from copper, nickel and gold mining. Estimates skyrocket into the billions of dollars for the state if all known mineral deposits on land with state mineral rights are eventually mined. So far, no such mining has been done here. But the rush toward a new era of mining has some landowners and environmental groups concerned. Last year, six mining companies bid on 123 mineral-rights parcels when the state offered 458,040 acres of state mineral interests across parts of St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca, Aitkin, Pine, Benton and Morrison counties, including large tracts just outside Duluth. No bids came for parcels in Pine, Benton or Morrison counties. High bidders pay the state an annual fee during exploration, between $1.50 and $35 per acre. But their bids will be selected mostly based on the highest royalty per ton the company offers the state when any actual mining occurs.”

On this week’s Vikings stadium developments, Kevin Seifert of ESPN writes: “I’ve avoided the whole democracy-republic argument in previous posts and won’t bore you too much with my feelings on that. Generally speaking, I think citizens should get an opportunity to voice approval or concerns through public hearings. But elected officials are on a slippery slope when they start delegating specific policy decisions to a cross-section of voters. Koch and Zellers know how difficult it will be to approve stadium financing via referendum. Perhaps it’s their back-door way of rejecting the Vikings’ proposal without taking full responsibility. Or maybe, and more likely, they’ve grabbed it as a political chip to cash in when bill negotiations heat up. As I always say, stadium projects always get bogged down in rhetoric and threats. We’re approaching that phase in Minnesota.”

His Sid-ness doesn’t mince words when he says: “The Vikings have done a lot of work to convince politicians in the Legislature of the benefits of the stadium and to vote in favor of it. The Wilf family is putting in more money to build the stadium than most other franchises have contributed that have recently built new facilities. But we still have Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers calling for a referendum in Ramsey County on the proposed half-percent sales tax needed to fund the stadium. I suggest Koch check with her Buffalo constituents on how she would fare in a future election if the Vikings, who are in the last year of their Metrodome lease, decide to move to Los Angeles or some other place if they can’t finalize this deal. … If a referendum took place and voters defeated the tax-increase proposal, believe me, it’s a cinch the Vikings would move. The team would be stuck in the Metrodome with no chance to take in the necessary revenue to compete with other teams.” And how would we live with ourselves if that happens?

Very cute photo essay by MPR’s Nikki Tundel of Fairgoers snoozing.

So much for the good life in rural Minnesota, MPR’s Dave Peters checks out a report from the Department of Health: “Rural Minnesotans smoke more than their urban cousins. They’re fatter. They exercise less. They die more frequently from diabetes, stroke and heart disease. More of them are uninsured. On the other hand, rural Minnesotans are less likely to suffer from venereal disease or AIDS and they get murdered less often. Those are some highlights from a report the Minnesota Department of Health released today. Given what we know from past studies, none of the findings are particularly surprising … but the report updates an analysis the department did in 2005. The report doesn’t address why these differences exist, but analyst Paul Jansen, who put it together, says there could be a lot of factors. Access to primary care is one possibility.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 09/02/2011 - 02:44 pm.

    I find the stories about trains to Duluth and buses from Apple Valley to be symptomatic of our messed up world. We build a bus route where thousands of potential users live because light rail is too expensive and now, apparently, we cannot afford bus drivers and diesel fuel.

    At the same time, we spend a few million to study routes for a $750 million dollar train that will never be funded. Really, it took millions to study which of two rights of way paths to take to get from Duluth to the Twin Cities??

  2. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 09/02/2011 - 03:55 pm.

    The route study was forced upon the NLX folks by the feds. Annoying, but they may fund 80% of it, so it’s a hoop worth jumping through.

    The Cedar Ave and I-35W BRT lines will dump passengers out in the middle of downtown, a few blocks from where the train to Duluth will run. It’s pretty good to have both, in my opinion. In fact, there are around 100 bus routes that converge there (plus Jefferson Lines, Greyhound, and Megabus not far away over by the Metrodome).

    The Northern Lights Express is also projected to run at a surplus within a few years of opening, which is the main reason why the federal government is even considering paying for 4/5ths of it. The only thing that’s really “bad” about it is that it’s not a train to Chicago, a route that would *really* pull in the dough if it ran at the same frequency and speed that the NLX is planned to do.

  3. Submitted by Dan Friberg on 09/02/2011 - 04:36 pm.

    Great comments, Bill. I would love to see high speed trains to Duluth, Chicago, Kansas City, etc. In this political climate, though, public transit projects need to be prioritized to get the biggest bang for the buck, and that means bulding lines in dense areas that will draw high ridership. Cedar is a great corridor as far as that goes. It’s crazy that the already-complete BRT won’t run only because it lacks operating funds, while millions go for studying the doomed line to Duluth. Totally backwards.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/02/2011 - 05:32 pm.

    We need a high speed train to a city of 86,000 people to do what, exactly?

    At the moment, it’s about a two hour drive from the center of the Twin Cities. At 110 mph it’s about an 85 minute trip, plus whatever time is spent getting to a depot, parking, etc. Looks like a tie to me.

    At $4.00 a gallon and in a car that gets 30 miles to the gallon, it costs about $38 round trip. If two of us go, that’s $19 a head. What is the price for a RT ticket used in the projections indicating the line would operate at a profit?

    Add to that the cost and hassle of transportation once in Duluth.

    Why am I going to take this train?

  5. Submitted by jim hughes on 09/02/2011 - 08:39 pm.

    Add me to the list of those who are skeptical about “high speed” rail to Duluth. Sorry, but 110 mph isn’t considered high speed anywhere else in the world – maybe we should call this “dial-up rail”. I like Duluth but – depending on price and travel time – probably wouldn’t make the trip very often. High speed rail to Hinckley? Sounds like a Garrison Keilor story.

    I love the idea of a truly high speed rail to Chicago. I’d use it and I’m convinced it would make great economic sense.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/03/2011 - 04:55 pm.

    It both amazes and depresses me that we are still spending money on something as stupid as passenger rail to Duluth. Do people not understand that the only reason this was even in play was that Duluth’s congressman was the head of the transportation comittee and now he’s gone?

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