Walz Doubles Down on Taxpayer Subsidies for Failed Amtrak Train Lines
The Walz administration’s attempt to get Minnesota taxpayers to subsidize a proposed $550 million passenger train to Grand Casino Hinckley and Duluth-Superior came up empty with the failure to pass a bonding bill at the legislature this year.
But outdated, wasteful government projects rarely fade away, they just get bigger and bolder. MnDOT now plans to double down on its $15 million request from this year in the 2020 legislative session, according to the Star Tribune.
The $30 million funding request from state coffers would move Northern Lights into its final design phase, with service beginning in 2023.
Rail planners say local and state funding is critical to coaxing federal grant dollars to Minnesota. “The only way we can demonstrate support is if the state and local communities have provided sufficient money to match federal grants,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT project manager.
MnDOT estimates passenger fares would account for less than half of the estimated $17.5 million cost of operating the line, leaving state taxpayers to fork over millions of dollars to subsidize riders’ tickets annually. But first Minnesotans would likely pay hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade a line that takes as long to reach its destination as vehicles on I-35.
Even worse, the Walz administration plan would result in Minnesota taxpayers heavily subsidizing Amtrak for operating the line. American Experiment revealed Amtrak’s quiet talks in the works with MnDOT earlier this year.
A sweetheart system established by Congress empowers Amtrak to raises millions of dollars off the backs of states like Minnesota by operating in-state passenger routes like NLX, according to a prominent passenger rail consultant.
“Regrettably, what has not yet been put on the table for the public’s right to know is a piece of congressional legislation called PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008),” said Mark E. Singer, who frequently criticizes Amtrak in the industry journal Railway Age.
Singer maintains the millions of dollars Amtrak would charge MnDOT to operate NLX would be tantamount to subsidizing the national rail line’s financially struggling commuter line in northeastern states at Minnesota taxpayers’ expense. Amtrak lost $168 million in 2018.
Yet for some reason the Walz administration apparently considers Amtrak to be a selling point. The governor also plans to press legislators to approve funding for a second Amtrak line between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Never mind that Amtrak’s current Empire Builder line between the two cities has a dismal on time record and continues to lose passengers, as American Experiment recently documented.
Ridership on the only Amtrak line in Minnesota, the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, has waned nearly 30 percent in recent years. The latest numbers compiled by the Rail Passengers Association indicate the Empire Builder lost another 10,000 riders in 2018, dropping to a total of 126,700 compared to 177,600 passengers in 2012. No wonder the Empire Builder alone ran an operating deficit of more than $50 million last year.
A check of Amtrak’s track record of arrivals and departures over the last year at Union Station in St. Paul reveals an on-time performance record of just 33 percent. Two out of three of the 715 Empire Builder trains arriving in the Twin Cities from July 18, 2018 to July 18, 2019 arrived later than scheduled, according to an online tracking website.
So full speed ahead in the Walz administration for two Amtrak lines that have already failed–the current line between the Twin Cities and Chicago and the old Northstar line to Duluth that shut down back in 1985 due to lack of demand.