By Bob Geiger
Dolan Media Newswires
Minneapolis — Planning for the 155-mile Northern Lights Express passenger rail line is chugging forward.
A Hennepin County board Tuesday discussed $4.5 million in proposed 2011 spending to keep the Duluth-to-Minneapolis project alive. Expenses for different variations of the line range from $550 million to $1.4 billion, depending on the amount of double track included to increase the potential number of round trips.
Potentially, the line could get a passenger from downtown Duluth to the Warehouse District of Minneapolis in just two hours.
The proposed 2011 budget combines administrative and lobbying costs. In addition to Hennepin County’s contribution, money also would come from the Passenger Rail Alliance and state and federal matching sources.
The PRA now prefers a development option that includes 40 miles of double track, said Jon Olson, division manager of public services for Anoka County who works for the PRA.
Members of the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority heard details of work on the line, which, like the Northstar Commuter Rail line, forms one of an increasing number of commuter or passenger rail lines proposed to connect downtown Minneapolis with other areas of the state.
HCRRA members are scheduled to vote on the measure in late August.
Olson said PRA projects costs for its preferred option at $550 million to $750 million.
Assuming approval by local, state and Federal Railroad Administration officials, construction of the Northern Lights Express line could begin in 2013 and open by late 2014, he said.
However, federal officials want the PRA to present three different route configurations for the track, which, depending on choice, could boost costs.
Olson said the 40 miles of double track would let Northern Lights developers run eight round trips per day from Minneapolis to Duluth, with each trip taking 2 hours, 17 minutes.
“That represents 756,000 riders per year,” said Olson, who said the project’s cost has risen because of a need to upgrade track for passenger travel.
Oberstar is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, while Obey is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Combined, the two men have provided the drive behind project planning and money for big-budget infrastructure projects nationwide.
However, Obey is retiring during a year of partisan battle over budget issues that Democrats fear will derail their plans to pay for economic stimulus projects.
If Republicans take enough seats in the November elections to regain a majority in the House, Olson said, it could be a concern, though Oberstar still is in a position to make the project happen.