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Lobbyists push for rail service

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An effort to resurrect passenger rail service between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities will be high on the agenda when Duluth and St. Louis County residents descend on St. Paul on Monday to lobby legislators.

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Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum at the Depot in Duluth, expressed optimism that passenger trains will begin to run between Duluth and the Twin Cities by 2009 or 2010.

"It's not a question of 'if' any more. It's a question of 'when,' " he said.

Assuming passenger rail service does return, however, tickets probably won't come cheap. Buehler believes one-way tickets will cost $38 to $42, with round-trip fares going for $70 to $80. He envisions two trains outbound from Duluth in the morning and late afternoon, plus two returning around noon and in the early evening.

The proposed service would primarily make use of tracks owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. Buehler said only relatively minor modifications would be necessary to boost travel speeds on the corridor from 50 to 79 mph, enabling passengers to make the trip from Duluth to the Twin Cities in about 2½ hours, with brief stops in Hinckley and another city en route, probably Cambridge.

Nevertheless, the cost of establishing the proposed rail service is projected to run about $120 million if it is built in 2009, Buehler said. His hope is that most of the expense will be borne by the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has been supportive of the proposed rail service, and Buehler said the senior lawmaker's leadership role on transportation issues greatly improves the odds of the plan becoming reality

Easter Sunday 1985 was the last time a regularly scheduled passenger train made the trip from the Twin Cities to Duluth.

That year, the late Rep. Willard Munger, one of the greatest supporters of the route, fell ill and was hospitalized. In his absence, the Minnesota Legislature failed to approve the $250,000 state subsidy that would have been needed to sustain the service.

The rail service was well used, Buehler said. He said that in its final 12 months of operation, trains running the route transported more than 100,000 passengers.

Duluth City Councilor Roger Reinert referred to himself as "a huge supporter" of efforts to restart the service with faster, more reliable trains.

"I believe in mass transit, and as energy prices go up, it makes more and more sense," Reinert said, adding that he views rail service as a needed tool to help spur economic development.

"St. Cloud is now being connected by rail, and Rochester has been at the table," Reinert said. "We need to be at the table, too."

"If we don't have critical mass transit connections, we will be left behind," Reinert warned.

Buehler said there are several factors besides improved speed and reliability that could make the route more attractive than it was in the past:

  • As proposed, the North Shore Intercity Passenger Rail line would terminate in Minneapolis' warehouse district, where easy connections can be made to the airport, the Mall of America and soon to the Hiawatha line, serving St. Paul.
  • In 2005, gas sold for as little as 89 cents per gallon, compared with prices that now hover around the $2-per-gallon mark.
  • The Hinckley Casino, which attracts about 5 million visitors yearly, didn't exist when the old passenger service was in operation.
  • Laptop computers and cell phones have enabled many people to turn their mass-transit commutes into work time.
  • Highway traffic congestion has worsened in the past 20 years.

    John Ongaro, a lobbyist for St. Louis County, said that during the coming session he probably will seek about $1.1 million in state money to support efforts to re-establish rail service between Duluth and Minneapolis.

    About $700,000 of that money probably would go to help purchase a critical link -- a 2-mile segment of railroad track between West Duluth and Morgan Park now owned by Canadian National Railway.

    An additional $400,000 would go toward preliminary engineering for the 150-mile corridor and to cover the state's share of the costs of conducting a Programatic Environmental Impact Study. Federal money will be sought to cover 80 percent of the study's expense.

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