With the Legislature poised to eliminate funding for the state’s Passenger Rail Office, supporters of passenger rail hope to pack public meetings this week in Sandstone, Duluth and Coon Rapids.
“We are at a turning point for the future of passenger rail service in Minnesota,” said Philip Qualy, Minnesota legislative director for UTU-SMART-TD, the largest union of railroad workers.
Funding for the office is not included in the omnibus Transportation Finance and Policy Bill. “If the modest funding request is not appropriated, the Passenger Rail office in Minnesota will cease to exist on July 1,” Qualy said.
The office oversees several state and regional train service projects, including the proposed Northern Lights Express, the Duluth to Twin Cities passenger service that is entering the final phase of system design and planning with the BNSF railroad for daily, multiple train service.
Public meetings on the Northern Lights Express are scheduled for:
- Tuesday, May 16, 5:30-7:30 p.m. in Sandstone at the Sandstone Senior Center.
- Wednesday, May 17, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. in Duluth at the Duluth Depot.
- Thursday, May 18, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Coon Rapids Civic Center, 11155 Robinson Dr., NW.
Frank Loetterle, project manager for the MnDOT Passenger Rail office, told the Duluth News Tribune that the Northern Lights Express is in the final step before it can solicit government funding for the $500-$600 million project. He said the rail line could potentially be included on the list for funding by the federal infrastructure bill promised by the Trump administration.
Passenger rail also needs to be included in the state’s bonding bill, Qualy said. Money bonded by the state for planning would be matched by federal dollars.
Numerous polls and studies show the public supports increased passenger rail within Minnesota and to other locations such as Chicago. Last year, ridership on Amtrak’s Empire Builder increased 5.8 percent in Minnesota and the Amtrak System covered 94 percent of its operating costs with system revenues.
“The funding of the MnDOT passenger rail office is necessary and vital to the long-term growth of Minnesota,” Qualy said. “The Legislature’s appropriation to support regional passenger rail service is a strategic economic investment that benefits both rural and metro citizens alike.”