All aboard the NLX boondoggle

Taxpayers would spend $17 million a year to subsidize Duluth train.

Backward-looking bureaucrats and local officials have for years sought to revive the failed passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Duluth. But a recent legislative hearing in Duluth designed to rally support for the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) instead exposed the idea as a complete boondoggle.

The train offers no advantage over I-35, taking just as long to reach Duluth as going by car—roughly two and a half hours. Moreover, NLX would be operated by Amtrak, whose one line running through Minnesota–the Empire Builder–continues to lose riders and runs chronically behind schedule. Before anyone goes anywhere, Minnesota taxpayers would be required to ante up some $220 million for the state share of the $550 million estimated cost of upgrading the tracks and facilities.

And there are more reasons why NLX isn’t the ticket for taxpayers. Passengers would not come close to paying their own way through the expected $35 cost of a seat. Minnesota taxpayers would be billed an estimated $17 million per year to subsidize ticket sales, as well as Amtrak for operating the line.

According to the Star Tribune, an Amtrak official stated at a legislative field hearing that state taxpayers would indeed be stuck with a hefty annual subsidy.

“A subsidy would be required, but a subsidy is required for local transit, for a number of things—it’s up to you to decide whether that makes sense to the state,” Derrick James, Amtrak senior manager of government affairs, told legislators, according to the newspaper.

The controversial national rail service has a reputation for gouging states for operating internal passenger lines like NLX, using the windfall to bolster its operations in the northeast. But the Walz administration appears determined to take Minnesotans back to 1985, down the same tracks that led to the closure of Amtrak’s last passenger line to Duluth, the Northstar.