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Twin Cities-Duluth project hits snag. But is there light at the end of the tunnel?

May 06, 2022

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate threw a wrench in the gears of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) project this week, passing an amendment that prohibits the state from investing money in the roughly 150-mile line between the Target Field Stadium in Minneapolis and Union Depot in Duluth. Supporters believe the NLX will nonetheless move forward. “This will work,” the chair of the project’s Technical Advisory Committee, Ken Buehler, promised. “It will be built.”

All 34 Senate Republicans voted against funding the project, which would upgrade BNSF tracks to accommodate Amtrak trains running at up to 90 mph. NLX is eligible to receive federal funds through last year’s infrastructure bill. But the state must first demonstrate its own commitment to the project.

Although one Senate Republican who voted against NLX said "I don't see why people would use it," the project is endorsed by a diverse range of groups and interests. Supporters include the chambers of commerce in Duluth and Minneapolis, the East Central Regional Development Commission, the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the University of Minnesota—Duluth, and the University of Wisconsin—Superior.

One of NLX’s Democratic supporters, Jen McEwen of Duluth, noted that it would give veterans from the northeastern part of the state much better access to the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. The Republican votes “are out of line with the broad support we see for this project in our communities,” McEwen said.

Advocates are pinning their hopes on the fact that the House’s proposed budget includes $85 million for the NLX, which also has the support of the state’s governor, Democrat Tim Walz. As the House and Senate budgets are reconciled over the next several weeks, funding for NLX could make it into the final version—especially if passenger-rail advocates in Minnesota make their voices heard.

“It will be more difficult,” Buehler said, “but it is not impossible because we know that the vast majority of the people we talk to are in favor of this.”

Advocates in Minnesota can ask their elected officials to support the project.

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