Northern Lights Express representatives give update

The trip from the Twin Cities to Duluth can be a long haul, especially as the traffic piles up on Interstate 35.

This could soon change in a way that will not only affect Twin Cities residents but also Cambridge residents.

On June 21, Ken Buhler, the executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, met with North 65 Chamber of Commerce members to discuss the Northern Lights Express.

The Northern Lights Express, or NLX, is a potential passenger rail project that would connect Duluth and Minneapolis.

The NLX would run along 152 miles of an existing rail corridor. The project would include six stations in Minneapolis, Coon Rapids-Fridley, Cambridge, Hinckley, Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth. From the stations, riders would have access to bus lines, bike trails and the Northstar Commuter Rail.

Among the many benefits, the project would give people a quicker option to travel north without having to worry about the congestion on I-35.

According to Buhler, the Twin Cities area loses $4 billion in productivity to congestion every year.

“To put that in perspective,” he added, “the MnDOT budget is around $3.4 billion.”
Riding the NLX would mean that commuters can now turn their travel time into “productive time.”

Traveling at a speed of 90 mph, the travel time between Duluth and Minneapolis would be about 2 1/2 hours.

Recent trends show commuters are starting to lean toward other modes of transportation, as opposed to personal cars.

According to Buhler, Amtrak riders are up 44 percent since 2000.

As Buhler puts it, “People don’t want a car, they want a ride.”

For commuter convenience, the NLX is currently planning to run eight trains per day at 110 mph and four round trips at 90 mph.

Early studies by the NLX board show the NLX will support existing businesses as well as support economic growth by improving intercity access.

According to the NLX Summary Report, the first year of construction combined with the first year of operation will increase local and state tax revenue by about $16 million. It is believed within the first 40 years, the NLX will generate around $355 million in total taxes.

Local businesses will not be the only ones to benefit, as the NLX also aims to bring jobs to its host cities. The rail is expected to bring in roughly 3,100 jobs during construction and create around 380 jobs annually for the first five years.

Currently, MnDOT is conducting their preliminary engineering and environmental review. There is still work to be done with the FRA and BNSF Railway to evaluate the benefit vs. cost analysis.

If all goes according to plan, the final construction and design would take roughly 2 1/2 years. If the construction and design phase breaks ground in 2017, it is possible for operation to begin as soon as 2020.

For examples of trains like the NLX, folks can turn to the Downeaster, which runs between Boston, Massachusetts, and Brunswick, Maine. Buhler stated the two railways are “nearly identical.” The Downeaster has been in operation since 2005 and is currently the fastest growing commuter railway in North America.

For more information about this project, visit dot.state.mn.us/nlx.