Duluth-Twin Cities passenger rail funded in transportation budget deal

House and Senate lawmakers have agreed on a final transportation budget bill that includes $194.7 million for Northern Lights Express rail. But it has to go through a few more steps.

A train engine passes over a swing bridge in winter during the twilight hour, with a lit ski hill visible behind it
The lights of Spirit Mountain shine beyond the Grassy Point railroad bridge on March 2, 2017. The proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail service would use the bridge on its route linking the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — Minnesota is closer than ever to funding a long-sought passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

House and Senate lawmakers have agreed on a final version of a transportation budget bill that includes $194.7 million for Northern Lights Express rail. With just two full days left to conclude their business, they took up the bill in a joint committee and approved it late Saturday night, May 20.

The 266-page bill, which also contains new taxes and transportation spending, will have to pass the House and the Senate before it reaches the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

In a statement, Northern Lights Express Alliance Chair and Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson hailed lawmakers' inclusion of funding.

“We can’t thank legislative leaders enough," he said. "Because of their efforts, we’ll have high-quality train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth that generations of Minnesotans will enjoy and benefit from.” 


Under the current plan, NLX would use 152 miles of existing BNSF Railway track and connect Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth. Stops are planned in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wisconsin.

Sections of track would be built alongside the main route so the passenger trains could move out of the way as freight trains move through. Passenger trains would travel about 90 mph along the route.

Route map

Advocates in the past have said service would likely start three years after securing government funding.

Estimates have placed the price tag of NLX at $450 million — but Minnesota would only have to chip in 20% of the total, as the federal government would pay $4 for every $1 from the state.

DFL lawmakers backed different funding levels for NLX in the Senate and House transportation bills. Senate language called for about $50 million, which would have fallen short of full funding. House DFLers called for $194 million, which the Senate adopted in a final transportation bill.

At the 4-1 federal match, $194 million in state funds would give the project nearly $1 billion, far more than old project cost estimates.

Supporters of NLX were enthusiastic this year about the odds for the proposed rail line after the DFL won control of all three branches of state government in November. For years, the proposal never gained any traction in the divided Legislature, where Republicans opposed the project.

Amtrak last operated a passenger rail route between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s, and has agreed to run NLX if it moves forward.


Republican lawmakers, including those along the route, question if the level of ridership and length of the trip justifies the expense. The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates a trip on the NLX would take about 2½ hours and could possibly outperform drive times depending on weather and traffic.

Transportation officials estimate up to 750,000 people will ride the train in the first year of service. MnDOT estimates the fare would be about $30-35 for a one-way ticket.

The Target Field stop in downtown Minneapolis would provide close access to public transit options to reach destinations across the Twin Cities, including light rail connections to downtown St. Paul and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Supporters also say the route will provide access to the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis via light rail.

Groups backing the passenger rail line already have a plan for the project which is “shovel-ready.” BNSF has said it would not take an official stance on the project until funding is secured.

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email .

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It could be up to a year or two before final federal funding is secured, and then construction can begin. That is projected to take three years.
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The bill was a priority this session for DFL lawmakers, who won complete control of state government in November. Business interests warn it will be a burden on taxpayers and businesses alike.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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