Proposed Duluth passenger train exposes wasteful spending in Biden infrastructure bill

Proponents of reviving the Twin Cities to Duluth-Superior Amtrak passenger rail line that was shut down in 1985 for lack of ridership failed to convince Minnesota lawmakers to include so much as a dime for the project at the state legislature last year. They struck out despite 12 years of arm twisting by lobbyists in St. Paul and DC to fund the so-called Northern Lights Express (NLX), in addition to a full-court public relations push covered by the Duluth News Tribune.

The plan to fund NLX appeared to be gaining steam late last year, when Amtrak announced its interest in being the operator and the Legislature conducted a field hearing about the project on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

But neither the Minnesota Senate nor Gov. Tim Walz included funding for NLX in their bonding proposals. The house bonding bill, which featured several provisions aimed at railroad projects, failed to pass by a three-fifths supermajority.

American Experiment has long warned that NLX would require hefty state taxpayer funding to build and operate a line that takes the same time to reach its destination as driving. Under Amtrak management millions of Minnesotans’ taxpayer dollars would be siphoned off to support rail operations in other states.

But NLX serves as a classic example of how pork barrel projects may get sidetracked but rarely derailed. President Biden’s $2 trillion grab bag of infrastructure projects before Congress breathes new life into meritless projects like Northern Lights all over the country.

Biden’s plan calls for $80 billion in funding for rail projects nationwide. Meanwhile, Amtrak’s plan for the next 15 years calls for creating 30 new routes around the country — including the Northern Lights route to Duluth.

It’s still uncertain what will be introduced in Congress — and which rail projects, if any, Congress would eventually fund.

But “with this current proposal and Amtrak’s hopes for expanding their system, there might be a possibility that the entire project would be funded through Amtrak or through the federal government,” said Frank Loetterle, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Northern Lights Express project manager.

“And that would be very good news for the supporters of the project.”

Good news for supporters, but not so much taxpayers. NLX proponents say the feds could cover all costs for refurbishing the up to $600 million line, including the state’s share of $220 million. But wait! There’s more, according to the paper.

Additionally, Amtrak is proposing that the federal government cover the first five years of operating the service, so local officials have time to promote it, and grow the number of passengers taking the train.

“It’s those first few years that are the toughest,’ said Ongaro. “For the federal government to cover any operating subsidy, that is just a huge incentive … to be able to hopefully get up and running.”

If a passenger train between Duluth and the Twin Cities were truly in demand, of course, there’d be no need for the feds or state to subsidize the boondoggle. It’s a tacit admission that the ones being taken for the ride are taxpayers. And the bloated Biden infrastructure proposal is just the ticket for doing it.