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Northern Lights Express gets an environmental green light
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Northern Lights Express gets an environmental green light

Plans to reconnect the Twin Cities with Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., have cleared environmental reviews and now await funding for final design and construction.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced on March 7 that the Northern Lights Express project was given a “Finding of No Significant Impact” on its Tier 2 Project Level Environmental Assessment by the Federal Railroad Administration on Feb. 20. (MnDOT’s announcement was covered extensively in state and local media outlets).

Project Manager Frank Loetterle said the next steps will be to work out a final operating plan with Amtrak, and then, once funding for final engineering design and construction is in hand, work out those details with BNSF.

Service could begin 2½ years after final funding is received, he said, adding that construction would take place over two years due to supply logistics and cold weather.

The Environmental Assessment process proved that the project can do what it proposes to do without adverse impacts, so now it’s up to state legislators and Congress to vote for funds, Loetterle added.

Supporters of the project “have to get out there and beat the hustings for funding,” he said.

MnDOT, serving as the project’s “Responsible Governmental Unit,” had previously determined that a state Environmental Impact Statement is not required under the state’s environmental review process. These documents are available at the MnDOT website.

The Northern Lights Express (NLX) service would operate four round-trips daily at speeds up to 90 miles per hour on approximately 152 miles of existing BNSF railway track from Target Field in Minneapolis to Duluth, with stops in Coon Rapids-Foley, Cambridge and Hinckley, Minn. and Superior, Wis. A maintenance facility and a layover facility could be built on separate sites in Sandstone and Duluth, or co-located on one site in Duluth.

Ridership estimates for the first year of service are between 700,000 and 750,000 rides, rising to between 900,000 and 1 million rides by 2040. Two trainsets – each with six coaches and a push/pull-equipped locomotive – would provide service, with a third trainset in reserve.

Initial capital investment is estimated at $547 million (in 2014 dollars); operating and maintenance costs are estimated at $17 million (in 2017 dollars) for  the first year of operation.

MIPRC supports the Northern Lights Express project as another crucial link in bringing faster, more frequent passenger rail service to our region, and to building a high-quality 21st century, multi-modal transportation system in our region and nation.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cooperated with MnDOT in preparing the Tier 2 Environmental Assessment for the NLX Project.

MnDOT officials said they will continue to work with FRA to identify funding to support final design and construction of NLX. Loetterle said MnDOT applied for, but didn’t get a TIGER grant in that program’s most recent round, announced last week.

Bob Manzoline, executive director of the St. Louis and Lake County Rail Authority, said his agency will apply for grade crossing funding via the federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program, which is authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015. (Applications are due June 21; here is the Notice of Funding Opportunity.)

While that won’t come near covering NLX’s initial capital costs, Manzoline said addressing some grade crossings on the route through CRISI funding would take a small bite out of those costs while moving the project along.

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