With Transportation Bill vote, Northern Lights Express closest it’s ever been to reality

Passenger railway connecting Twin Cities and Duluth could finally become reality
Passenger railway connecting Twin Cities and Duluth could finally become reality(Northern News Now)
Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 6:42 PM CDT
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ST. PAUL, MN -- The Northern Lights Express (NLX) has been in the works for more than two decades, but the proposed railway between Duluth and the Twin Cities has never been able to secure full funding at the state level. On Thursday, the Minnesota Senate brought the project the closest it’s ever been to reality.

The Senate approved its Transportation Budget Bill on a vote of 36-31 on Thursday, securing funding for a number of projects, including the NLX.

“There’s a coalition that has been working on this in northeastern Minnesota for years,” said Sen. Jen McEwen, (DFL - Duluth).

The project has received funding from the House several times over the years, but had never made it past the Minnesota Senate until Thursday.

“We have a record amount of funding, $50 million, allocated for the Northern Lights Express in the Senate Transportation bill and budget,” said McEwen.

The House passed their own version of the bill last week. It also included funding for the project, but their total was a significantly higher investment of $194 million. The House and Senate will meet up in a conference committee in the coming weeks to decide which level of funding makes it into the final bill.

“Going into that conference, the discussion is going to be what that final number is, but we’re in an excellent starting place for that,” McEwen said.

With a federal match, the state of Minnesota only has to pay for 20% of the project’s total; the federal government will cover the rest using infrastructure money.

Critics of the bill, most often Republicans, claim the project is an unnecessary use of state dollars.

“The majority of the people in my district are still opposed to it. They really don’t feel it would serve them very well,” said Sen. Jason Rarick (R - Pine City).

Rarick’s district lies right in the path of the railway’s proposed route.

He believes the project is unnecessary, as it would take the same amount of time to travel between Duluth and the Twin Cities by car.

“Getting dropped off in Duluth isn’t going to help the vast majority of people who are going north for a weekend. So it just isn’t going to serve near the number of people that I believe the projections say.”

But McEwen says it’s about having another option, one that’s possibly more convenient and more equitable.

“There is a demand. Even though the time is approximately equal if you’re going to drive your car versus take the train, I mean some people can’t drive. Some people don’t own cars,” she said.

The project will go to conference committee, and then be signed by Governor Walz to be made into law.

The project will use existing rail, but there’s currently no timeline for the project.