Planning continues for Northern Lights Express

Planning work continues on the proposed Northern Lights Express rail project from Minneapolis to Duluth-Superior through Anoka County.

Two representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which is managing the project, were at a Coon Rapids City Council work session May 5 to give an update on the project’s progress and to show a concept plan for the proposed station on Foley Boulevard.

If constructed, the high-speed passenger rail service (90 mph or higher) would operate on some 152 miles of existing Burlington-Northern Santa Fe rail corridor, the single-line track from Duluth-Superior to Coon Creek Junction just west of Foley in Coon Rapids, where it would merge with the double-line BNSF tracks for the remainder of the route into Minneapolis.

Potential stations have been identified in Superior, Duluth, Hinckley, Cambridge, Coon Rapids-Foley and Minneapolis (Target Field).

According to Francis Loetterle, MnDOT project manager, a second-level environmental review is currently being conducted, as well as ridership forecasts, revenue projections and cost-benefit analysis.

The environmental work is expected to be completed in February 2016, while the ridership, revenue and cost-benefit study, which will include capital and operation cost estimates and the number of trips each day, is anticipated to be done this summer, Loetterle said.

“We are shooting for July,” he said.

The concept for the Foley station shows it on the west side of the boulevard – early plans proposed it on the east side of Foley, but that would have required reconstructing the Highway 610 bridge over the tracks – with the platform on the north side of the tracks, Loetterle told the council.

The concept drawing presented to the council envisions an entrance road to the station west of Foley being at a new signalized intersection with the Metro Transit Park and Ride on the east of Foley, with 160 parking spaces plus room for expansion, a passenger bus drop-off and walkway, and a pedestrian path from the park and ride.

There would also be a station building and two platform warming shelters, Loetterle said.

“This is a straightforward, simple design,” he said.

“We anticipate people from outside Coon Rapids would use the station to travel to Duluth.”

According to Loetterle, the proposed station layout is flexible to accommodate either an overpass over the railroad tracks, which has been proposed, but not yet funded by Anoka County – Foley is a county highway in that area – or the existing at-grade crossing that is in place.

If the overpass is not built by the time Northern Lights Express construction starts, the station platform would be moved farther west by 300 or 400 feet to provide enough distance from the at-grade crossing, Loetterle said.

Loetterle was asked by council members when passenger rail service might begin. Under the present timeline, if all the approvals are received, design and engineering moves forward and funding is obtained, the earliest is 2020, he said.

The Northern Lights Express project has received federal and state funding for the studies that have taken place and are being done.

BNSF has made it clear that any expansion of rail service – either commuter rail or passenger rail – would require a third main line to be constructed from Coon Creek Junction to the Northtown Yards, Loetterle said.

But he said that Metro Transit, which operates the Northstar Commuter Rail services, has indicated at this point that it is not interested in using the proposed Foley station.

According to the MnDOT Northern Lights Express website, preliminary engineering of track and railroad bridges is expected to be undertaken by BNSF in the 2015-2016 time frame.

The purpose of the Northern Lights Express is “to provide fast, convenient and affordable intercity passenger rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth that will provide an alternative to travel by automobile, bus or plane,” the website states.

MnDOT is managing the project in consultation with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance and with the cooperation of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

When the passenger rail alliance was formed in 2007 as a joint powers board to explore renewing passenger rail service, which Amtrak ended in 1985, the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, which comprises the seven members of the Anoka County Board, was a member.

But in June 2012, the county rail authority on a 4-3 vote approved a resolution to withdraw from the alliance and the project.