Yet another wasteful train project nominated for Golden Turkey

The Golden Turkey committee tried to get through the nomination process this year without choosing a rail or bus project, but those plans were derailed (get it?) when the legislature spent $194.5 million on a train from Minneapolis to Duluth called the Northern Lights Express. For $35, a single person will get from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis to downtown Duluth in 2.5 hours, which is exactly how long it takes by car. Once in Duluth, you’re on your own.

  • Want to go to Canal Park? Just walk across the bridge over Highway 35.
  • Want to get to the North Shore? Better rent a car, it’s another two hours.
  • Want to go anywhere else in Duluth? Try an Uber. 
  • Have your husband and kid with you? That’s another $70 one-way.
  • Need to get back home? That’s another $35 each.

The genius transportation planners have pegged ridership for the Northern Lights Express at 750,000 in the first year and 1 million by 2040. And we all know their track record (get it?) on ridership projections from previous projects like the Northstar Commuter Rail. Never mind the exact same line was discontinued in 1985 due to (you guessed it) lack of ridership.

Supporters of the train point to an important stop about halfway to Duluth to bolster their ambitious ridership numbers: Grand Casino Hinkley. But will senior citizens from the Twin Cities drive or Uber downtown to ride a train for $35 to get to the casino? You can play a lot of nickel slots with $35 (just sayin). Since the train stop in Hinkley is more than a mile from the casino, they will have to factor in a shuttle ride as well.

The total cost of the new train is projected to be $592.3 million, with the balance expected from the federal government. As we’ve seen with every other bus or rail project in Minnesota, that will not be the final cost of the project. The Minnesota Department of Transportation predicts fare income will pay for 63% of the $18.9 million needed to operate the line each year. The rest will be picked up by state taxpayers. Again, don’t count on these rosy operating projections from the transportation planners in Minnesota. It always costs more than they promise.

Supporters also tout the creation of 3,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs once the line is operating. They also brag about creating $15 million in local and state sales tax revenue during the construction process. So spending almost $200 million in income tax revenue will yield $15 million in sales tax revenue. Yay us!

American Experiment Economist John Phelan (esteemed member of the Golden Turkey Award committee) summed up the Northern Lights Express project this way: “It only makes sense to subsidize things people will actually use. This train will end up being a very expensive way to ferry oxygen from one part of the state to another.”

We take no pleasure in once again nominating a transportation boondoggle for the next Golden Turkey award, the Northern Lights Express.

To vote for your choice for the 2023 Golden Turkey award, click here.