Student supporters of the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) high-speed rail project from Minneapolis to Duluth/Superior through Anoka County took their message on the road Saturday.
Joining forces to host what they called a rolling press conference in Duluth, Hinckley, St. Paul and Coon Rapids were students from the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) and Macalester College in St. Paul.
At Duluth, Hinckley and St. Paul, the students were joined by local elected officials testifying why they support the NLX and why Minnesotans should be all aboard on this project.
However, at the Coon Rapids stop it was only the students that spoke – Nicholas Matzke, co-chairperson of the Macalester MPIRG; Brian Downing, co-chairperson of the UMD MPIRG; Emma Wright, MPIRG board chairperson; and Jason Reid, a student in the UMD undergraduate research opportunities program, who has done a study comparing the proposed NLX project with the train system in Germany.
The Coon Rapids press conference took place at Metro Transit’s Foley Park and Ride facility on Foley Boulevard, which is close to the proposed Foley Station on the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad, one of the stops currently identified for the NLX route.
However, the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, on a 4-3 vote in June, cut its ties with the NLX project, withdrawing 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.
At that time, Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who chairs the rail authority, called the NLX a “gamble” he was not ready to saddle county taxpayers with.
But County Commissioner Dan Erhart, a strong proponent of the project from day one and a leader on the alliance when he chaired the county rail authority, said in June that NLX was very important to Anoka County and an important link in a metrowide transportation system.
According to Jill Brown, a spokesperson for the NLX alliance, the project is moving forward without Anoka County.
Work is almost complete on the required environmental assessment and it does not appear that there are any environmental issues that would pose a problem for the project, Brown said.
The plan is to start preliminary engineering on the project early in 2013 and that will take 20 months; the first meeting on that is scheduled for Dec. 19, she said.
The decision of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority to pull out of the proposed project won’t affect the route through the county; that has been approved by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Brown said.
“But the Foley Station might not end up being part of the project,” she said.
And that would negatively impact potential future expansion of the Northstar Commuter rail line, Brown said.
According to Dakotah Johnson, MPIRG organizing director, a recent MPIRG study found that students are increasingly in support of sustainable energy sources, like the NLX project.
Besides providing high speed rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth – 2 1/4 hours at speeds of 110 mph – the NLX project is estimated to create some $2 billion in corridor development and over 10,000 jobs, Johnson said.
The goal of MPIRG is to heighten awareness of the project and let Minnesotans know that high speed rail is still a reality, she said.
Not only will it boost economic development and create jobs, NLX will reduce the carbon footprint and bring sustainability, according to Downing.
Reid described NLX as a very important piece in the rebuilding of mass transit in Minnesota and a shift in the transportation culture of Minnesotans.
“Young people are at the forefront of this transit movement, with a new vision for the future of Minnesota: a vibrant economy, opportunities for all our citizens, an emphasis on sustainability and environmental responsibility – and transit options that reflect all these values,” Wright said at the Coon Rapids press conference.
“In the wake of an election where young people turned out to vote in record numbers and were key in defeating two harmful amendments, the young people of Minnesota are energized and eager to be a part of a larger conversation about how to connect our communities in new ways, and how to lay the infrastructure for the future of transit.”
MPIRG describes itself is a grassroots, non-partisan, non-profit, student-directed organization that empowers and trains students and engages the community to take collective action in the public interest throughout the state.
Peter Bodley is at [email protected]