The train line that won’t go away

It’s a train that only state and county bureaucrats from the Twin Cities to Duluth have been riding for more than a decade now.

Northern Lights Express, NLX for short, was originally touted as a $1 billion high-speed rail line that would whiz passengers to their destination in 2 hours and 15 minutes at speeds of up to 110 miles per

Despite the hype, initial studies showed taxpayers would have to pay a subsidy of $37 to $83 a passenger to fund the proposed line’s annual operating and maintenance costs. Another cost-benefit report concluded taxpayers would receive only 35 cents in benefits for every dollar spent on NLX.

In the private sector, those projections would be the end of the 152 mile line. But years later, MnDOT and county officials continue to press forward full steam ahead anyway, determined to be up and running by 2020.

Yet not every jurisdiction along the way agrees that NLX is the ticket. When it comes to putting their own taxpayers’ skin the game, local media reports the Superior, Wisconsin City Council has held off up until now.

That could change when the Superior City Council votes Tuesday on whether to spend the $5,000 annually it takes to gain a voting seat on the Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail Alliance Board.

“They’re going to be one of the benefactors once this gets completed,” said Raukar, who chairs the board. “Whether they come to the table early, in the middle or at the finish line, Superior is going to be impacted by this.”

Jason Serck is the economic development, planning and port director for Superior. He said it would be a misnomer to say that Superior hasn’t been part of the process for what is being called the NLX. The city has been actively involved in finding a potential station location as well as the environmental review processes that are ongoing, he said.

But with the way that development has taken the long game, Superior, Serck said, simply hasn’t been in any hurry to pony up the money necessary to be a part of the protracted planning. Until now, the city has been mostly content to be apprised of NLX developments.

“I think the timing is right,” Serck said. “You wouldn’t think $5,000 is much, but in these times it’s something you have to wrestle with — $5,000 going to something other than potholes.”nlx-fair-flyer-rev

It can’t be easy getting local governments on board.  NLX is now projected to go half as fast–60 mph on average–and make half as many trips–four per day–as first envisioned, leading to a scenario in which rail passengers would be left watching cars zip past them on the I-35 corridor connecting the Twin Ports and Twin Cities.

One Douglas County supervisor isn’t so sure the City Council will vote to join the alliance — at least not yet.

Nick Baker has been attending the NLX meetings in Pine City on behalf of Douglas County for years — first as a voting member and currently as an observer reporting back to the county. The Douglas County Board stopped paying the $5,000 annual fee for voting participation, Baker said, because of austerity measures being imposed on the county by the state government.

“Both the city and county are so strapped for money because of the changes in our state and our funding,” Baker said. “We’re really hurting. We felt (as a board) we had so many local needs to address before we continued to put money into something so far into the future.”

Baker said support in the county favors the NLX — seeing the advantages for tourists and students, in particular. But in terms of throwing their chips onto the NLX planning table, that’s another story.

Said Baker of the upcoming City Council vote, “I’m sure they’re going to say no.”

Apparently, no one told the feds about the downgraded NLX specs and trips. The U.S. Department of Transportation website still claims NLX will run at speeds of 110 mph and offer eight trips daily.