Anoka County drops out of Northern Lights Express project

Anoka County will no longer be part of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) project to restore passenger train service between Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior through the county.

The preferred route of the proposed NLX passenger rail service from Minneapolis to Duluth/Superior, which has been approved by the Federal Rail Administration. Source: NLX website
The preferred route of the proposed NLX passenger rail service from Minneapolis to Duluth/Superior, which has been approved by the Federal Rail Administration. Source: NLX website

The Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, which comprises the seven members of the Anoka County, today (Tuesday, June 12) voted 4-3 to approve a resolution to withdraw from the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, a joint powers board formed in 2007 to explore renewing the passenger rail service, which Amtrak ended in 1985.

Anoka County Regional Rail Authority Chairman Matt Look placed the resolution on the rail authority agenda and it was supported by Commissioners Rhonda Sivarajah, Andy Westerberg and Robyn West, while Commissioners Dan Erhart, Carol LeDoux and Jim Kordiak voted no.

However, the county’s withdrawal won’t kill the project.

According to Tim Yantos, rail authority executive director, the project will continue without Anoka County.

The proposed NLX would travel in a 155-mile corridor between Minneapolis and Duluth/Superior, offering 2 1/4-hour service with top speeds of 110 mph.

Armed with a $5 million federal grant and funding from the Minnesota Legislature, preliminary engineering on the NLX project is expected to begin in August, according to Bob Manzoline, NLX executive director.

Since April, aerial corridor mapping has been taking place along the corridor, including in Anoka County, work required by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

“We are disappointed by the rail authority’s action, but the project will continue,” Manzoline said.

Nor will the route change, he said.

Last summer, the FRA approved the preferred route for the NLX in the Highway 65 and I-35 corridor through Anoka County.

Part of the preliminary engineering, which will take some 12 months, will be to pinpoint station locations and one of them will be in the north metro, Manzoline said.

“Right now we are looking at either Coon Rapids or Fridley as station locations,” he said.

There is an existing commuter rail station in Fridley, but not at Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids, where the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad Duluth line links up with the BNSF west coast line at Coon Creek Junction.

According to Manzoline, Amtrak is considering using the existing commuter rail station in Fridley as a stop for its Empire Builder from Chicago through Minneapolis/St. Paul to the west coast.

Estimated start-up costs in 2010 dollars are $872,872, which includes track work, station construction and purchase of rolling stock, Manzoline said.

The goal of NLX is to be ready to seek construction financing in two years, he said.

Anoka County’s share of the NLX budget is 15 percent, Manzoline said.

The county’s cost to be a member of the alliance in 2012 is $54,000, but it is the potential future costs to the county that concerned Look, Sivarajah, Westerberg and West.

But the fact that the rail authority was even considering withdrawing from the NLX Alliance disappointed Erhart, a longtime proponent of the project, a great deal, he said.

“This is a project we have been working on for many years and is very important to Anoka County,” Erhart said.

It would be an important link in a metrowide transportation system that would “make Anoka County a great place to live, work, play and retire,” he said.

“It would tie everything together,” Erhart said.

According to Erhart, the NLX project would enhance Northstar Commuter Rail, adding more trips and allowing the line to expand to St. Cloud.

“Public transportation is becoming increasingly important and Anoka County should not be left behind,” Erhart said.

Back in the Bush Administration era, high level administration officials studied rail projects nationwide and the NLX was ranked eighth, he said.

“We should not be satisfied with a less than adequate transportation system,” Erhart said.

With Northstar, Anoka County is competitive with the rest of the metro area; without NLX it won’t be, he said.

According to LeDoux, the cost to Anoka County to remain in the NLX Alliance was minimal, a lot less than people waste in food each day.

“We are being really short-sighted and need to look to the future,” LeDoux said.

“I passionately believe that we should stay involved.”

And LeDoux pointed to the action of the Coon Rapids City Council some years ago to support the project as another reason for her willingness to support membership in the alliance for another year.

Kordiak said he regretted the resolution as “a lack of vision for the future.”

Federal dollars are available for the project as well as for a third main line between Coon Creek Junction in Coon Rapids and I-694 in Fridley, which would be needed if NLX became a reality, and presented a “robust opportunity for Anoka County,” he said.

But Westerberg said the county’s tax dollars could be better spent on other mass transit projects and not on a proposal that could be 30 years out.

And he said funding for the third main line could be pursued without NLX.

According to West, Duluth’s population is dwindling and is not likely to grow in the future.

And West said she doubted that people would take the train instead of driving to Duluth.

“This is not a good use of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

According to Sivarajah, she has been involved with the NLX Alliance for two years and she was sceptical of the cost projections and benefits.

The federal government has not guaranteed paying 80 percent of the NLX start-up costs, only up to 80 percent and she doubted that would happen given the current economy, Sivarajah said.

Nor did Sivarajah think the Minnesota Legislature would approve its $139 million share with another state budget deficit looming in the next biennium, she said.

“That’s pie in the sky,” Sivarajah said.

In addition, Sivarajah said she did not think that NLX would be self-sustaining after two years of operating subsidies as projected.

As an example, she used a Maine to Boston train system that has a corridor population of one million more people than Minneapolis/Duluth and is still being subsidized after 10 years.

The route has annual ridership of 500,000, yet NLX is projecting 750,000 a year in ridership, according to Sivarajah.

And the projected $2 billion economic benefit over 20 years would probably happen without NLX, Sivarajah said.

Indeed, she described NLX as a “bait and switch” to get commuter rail to Cambridge.

NLX is not a benefit to county taxpayers, Sivarajah said.

Look called NLX a “gamble” he was not ready to saddle county taxpayers with.

While the dollars the county has to pay to stay in NLX do not seem like a lot now, the cost to the county in the future would likely be a good deal higher, he said.

He had no confidence that the federal government would come through with its projected share of up to 80 percent, in which case he could see Anoka County stuck with a cost of up to $100 million for the project, according to Look.

Amtrak could not make it work when it ran passenger rail service from Minneapolis to Duluth, Look said.

As well, he said improvements to I-35 mean that residents are going to drive to Duluth, not take the train.

With Anoka County dropping out, representatives of the NLX Alliance include the regional rail authorities of Hennepin, Isanti, Pine, St. Louis and Lake counties, the cities of Minneapolis and Duluth and the Mille Lacs of Ojibwe.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]

  • Ethan Campbell

    I totally agree with Matt Look. This project would have been a giant waste of money. Amtrak proved this 25 years ago. I have lots of great memories from when I was a child taking the train. But our highway system and automobiles are so much better today, as compared to 30 years a go. The decission to move the station from Coon Rapids to Fridley is not going to bring any kind of economic benefits or looses to Coon Rapids. Its decissions like this that do not make sense for Coon Rapids.

  • Matt

    Yes. Let it go. Don’t these people every do any research? They sure are quick to waste taxpayer money, though.