Lawmakers Stiff Second Chicago to Twin Cities Amtrak Train in Bonding Bill

It says a lot when a pet project backed by well-connected lobbyists fails to make the cut in the $1.9 billion bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature filled with lots of other goodies for special interests.

Nevertheless that’s what happened to the passenger rail group promoting yet another Amtrak train for taxpayers to subsidize along with the perpetually late arriving Empire Builder line at Union Depot in St. Paul.

Supporters claim 124,000 riders will take the proposed train annually, roughly the number of passengers that historically board the existing train.  But their timing couldn’t have been worse  with the Empire Builder and other Amtrak lines nationally suffering a drastic decline in ridership during the COVID-19 era.

Yet the Pioneer Press reports the legislative loss came as a something of a shock to rail advocates resolutely convinced if taxpayers build it, Minnesotans will come.

A proposed second train between St. Paul and Chicago will be delayed after the Minnesota Legislature declined to provide $10 million in matching funds.

Meeting in their fifth special session of the year, lawmakers adjourned earlier this month after approving a nearly $2 billion bonding bill that did not include funding for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) Second Train.

“We’re disappointed,” said Mark Vaughan, chair of the Great River Rail Commission, which is advocating for the second train. “But I can promise that the commission is resolute in advocating for funding again in the 2021 session.”

Perhaps lawmakers took note of the fact that Amtrak has cut back service to every other day on the heavily taxpayer-subsidized Empire Builder and other lines due to a nearly 50 percent decline of riders nationwide amid little hope of a resurgence due to customers’ coronavirus concerns.

With $50 million in federal grants and other seed money already pledged, the proposed line depended on $10 million in funding from Minnesota to get underway. But no such luck when the dust cleared from the wheeling and dealing in St. Paul.

Of course, this probably isn’t the end of the line for the project. But at least it’s making the special interests behind it nervous.

State funding next year will be critical as federal dollars may not be available after September 2021.