Minnesota Lawmakers Haggle Over Bonding Bill

Political wrangling in Minnesota has complicated efforts to institute a second Amtrak train between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Minnesota lawmakers were haggling over bonding authority in the waning hours of their current legislative session and have until Sunday night to finish their work.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is seeking $10 million in bonding authority for track and signal improvements to the route of the second train, which would supplement the Empire Builder, a long-distance train that operates west of the Twin Cities to Seattle and Portland.

The bonding authority is needed for Minnesota and Wisconsin to commit $25 million in local matching funds in order to qualify for $50 million in federal money from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program.

Wisconsin lawmakers have approved $10 million in bonding and landed a $12.6 million in federal start-up grant for the first three years of operation of the train.

Amtrak has agreed to pay $5 million toward the new train.

The standoff in the Minnesota legislature is in part a fight between the state’s Democratic governor and Republican members of the House over the governor’s use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rail Passengers Association reported on Friday that some supporters of the second train proposal believe the threat by GOP lawmakers to block the bonding bill has abated because Senate Republicans disagree with their colleagues in the House about bonding issue strategy.

Gov. Tim Walz proposed the $10 million bonding authority for MnDOT for the Chicago-Twin Cities second train.

A House bonding bill includes $40 million that would also include the proposed Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth, the second Chicago-Twin Cities train, and an expansion of Northstar commuter service

A Senate bill has proposed proposed $15 million for the second Chicago-Twin Cities train and the Northern Lights Express.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, said earlier this week that the fact that Walz is allowing his stay-at-home order to expire on May 18 and to allow more businesses to reopen while observing safety guidelines might be enough to break the bonding bill deadlock.

RPA contends that a second Chicago-Twin Cities train will not adversely affect Empire Builder ridership.

The rail passenger advocacy group said many of the riders for the new train would be former bus passengers or new patrons who are not riding Amtrak.

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