Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Department of Transportation’

Minnesota Lawmakers Haggle Over Bonding Bill

May 16, 2020

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.

Northern Lights Express Proponents Have Their Say Before Legislative Committee Meeting in Duluth

December 16, 2019

Supporters of the proposed Northern Light Express got their chance to have their say before members of the Minnesota House Finance and Policy Committee last week.

The committee held a public hearing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to discuss how funding can be secured for the proposed rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Speaking on behalf of the service was state representative Mary Murphy who said she isn’t looking for a time machine but “We have to learn how to travel into the future.”

Murphy is sponsoring a $4 million bonding bill that would pay for the engineering phase of the $550 million project.

Informally known as NLX, the plan is to operate four roundtrips a day over BNSF tracks between Minneapolis and Duluth with intermediate stops in Minnesota in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, and Hinckley. The trains would also stop in Superior, Wisconsin.

The service is envisioned as having a top speed of 90 miles per hour and an average speed of 60 miles per hour.

“It will change everything,” said Ken Buehler, chairman of the NLX Alliance Technical Advisory Committee about getting the funding approved.

Amtrak estimates the service would need annual funding of $17 million but Bob Manzoline, NLX Alliance executive director, said the funding is more likely to be closer to $7 million.

How the project will be funded has yet to be worked out, which means that the service is likely years away from being implemented even in a best case scenario.

Meetings Held in Minnesota, North Dakota to Public Increase Interest, Support for Daylight Amtrak Service

November 12, 2019

Meetings were held in Fargo, North Dakota; and Moorhead, Minnesota, on Oct. 30 to push for daylight rail passenger service to those cities.

The meetings were conducted by All Board Minnesota and drew 120 people including some state legislators from both states.

Frank Loetterle of the Minnesota Department of Transportation State Rail Office said the state legislature would need to fund the planning process to start a new train.

He said that process would take approximately four years.

Leaders of All Aboard Minnesota said that community groups and residents need to contact their state legislators to lobby for funding for MnDOT’s planning for this new service.

The rail passenger advocacy group also discussed the economic and mobility benefits that additional passenger rail could offer.

They also gave an overview of the proposed additional service between the Twin Cities and Chicago, saying it could be extended to Fargo/Moorhead.

Fargo is a stop for Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, but is scheduled to arrive between midnight and 5 a.m.

Nos. 7 and 8 do not make station stops in Moorhead, which is adjacent to Fargo.

The event was the fifth held by All Aboard Minnesota in the past 18 months in an effort to  promote more rail service and generate public interest and support.

Supporters of New Train Look to Next Year

July 9, 2019

Supporters of a second Amtrak train between Chicago and Twin Cities are taking a “wait ‘til next year” approach after failing this year to win state funding for development of the service.

The Minnesota legislature did not approve a request from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to pay for more environmental and design work and service planning.

“We’re kind of on life support for right now from our perspective, but we’re keeping the project moving forward,” said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office.

However, in Wisconsin the legislature did OK $300,000 to fund environmental work related to the project.

The proposed service would supplement the existing Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder that currently operates between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Supporters of the second train say the Empire Builder is delay prone, particularly headed eastbound.

“I think we finally got some momentum this legislative session,” said Mark Vaughan, chairman of the Great River Rail Commission, a group of local government officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin that supports efforts to add a second train.

Getting the second train started is projected to cost between $130 million and $140 million.

An Amtrak feasibility concluded that the service could attract 155,000 passengers annually, in addition to the existing 123,000 passengers riding the Empire Builder.

“You’d be providing an option for folks who don’t want to fly or drive, or can’t drive anymore or choose not to drive,” Krom said.

“A lot of people from Red Wing, Winona, La Crosse, Tomah, the Dells are getting on and off,” he said. “It’s providing access for people for those markets in between where there aren’t many options to fly.”

2nd Chicago-Twin Cities Trains Hinges on Funding

April 5, 2019

The rail manager of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sounded an upbeat note about the prospects of launching a second Amtrak train in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor, but cautioned that it still hinges on whether the Wisconsin legislature appropriates the money to pay for it.

Arun Rao spoke at a meeting in Portage, Wisconsin, called by the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers.

He said the Federal Railroad Administration has granted WisDOT an exemption for completing the second phase of an environmental study after deciding the state had done enough already.

“This is very good news because it saves a lot of time and money,” Brown said. “It shortens the timeline, but the state budget is still the main thing to watch right now.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is seeking $45 million for passenger rail, although his proposal does not specify how much, if any, of that funding would be used for the Chicago-Twin Cities train.

Amtrak currently serves the route west of Milwaukee with the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

South of Milwaukee Amtrak operates seven daily Hiawatha Service roundtrips, which are funded in part by Wisconsin.

“What we’ve heard, unofficially, is that some of the money would be used for the [Chicago-Twin Cities]train, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Terry Brown of WisARP.

WisARP has estimated that it will take $10 million to complete preliminary studies being conducted jointly by WisDOT and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Advocates of the train have argued that it would provide more reliable service than the Empire Builder, which is subject to delays.

The final design work for the Chicago-Twin Cities train has not yet been completed so such issues as capacity, equipment and scheduling are pending.

An earlier Amtrak study of the route concluded that a second Chicago-Twin Cities train would handle 155,000 passengers annually.

The route between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities has not had multiple daily train frequencies since the Chicago-Duluth, Minnesota, North Star, was discontinued between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 25, 1981.

Transportation Heads Picked in Wisconsin, Minnesota

December 28, 2018

The incoming governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin have announced their picks to lead their states’ transportation departments.

Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz appointed Margaret Anderson Kelliher as the commissioner for the state’s transportation department.

She served two terms as the Minnesota House Speaker and 10 years on the Transportation Policy and Transportation Finance committees.

During her time as speaker, Kelliher oversaw the successful Transportation and Transit Funding package in 2008, which created an investment of new and dedicated funds into Minnesota’s bridges, roads and transit systems.

“Margaret understands the importance of addressing the diversity of transportation needs across our state. She is an accomplished leader who will bring people together to improve Minnesota’s transportation system,” said Walz in a statement.

Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers picked Craig Thompson as the next secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation .

Thompson was most recently executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

He also served as the legislative director for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Study Recommends Chicago-St. Paul Train

September 24, 2018

A second passenger train between Chicago and Twin Cities is a viable concept, a Minnesota Department of Transportation study has found.

A second train on the route should operate four to six hours later than the eastbound Empire Builder, which currently is scheduled to leave St. Paul at 8 a.m.

The second westbound train would operate six hours apart from the Empire Builder, which is scheduled to arrive into St. Paul at 10:03 p.m.

The cost of the service would range between $137 million and $169 million. However, no funding source for the service has materialized.

A previous Amtrak study found 155,000 passengers would ride the second train and recommended the proposal proceed with an environmental review and public outreach efforts that would make the project eligible for federal funding.

“The bottom line is local government has been carrying the water for the last couple of years on this issue,” said Rafael Ortega, Regional Railroad Authority chairman. “We need to push this at the state legislature.”

The Empire Builder operates daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland.

Duluth Service Moves to Design Stage

March 28, 2018

Proponents of restoring intercity rail passenger service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, have moved into the design phase of the project and also are seeking money to fund it.

“The planning is done. There is no more planning that needs to be done. Now we are ready to build,” said Frank Loetterle, project manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Rail Office.

Loetterle said MnDOT is in “extensive discussions” with Amtrak and BNSF, which owns the tracks to be used by the proposed Northern Lights Express.

Once capital operating funding is secured, the service could be in operation in about two and a half years after the final design process begins.

The project is expected to require between $500 million and $600 million.

Derrick James, governmental affairs senior officer at Amtrak, described services such as Northern Lights as “the future for passenger rail.”

James said a Midwest regional rail system of higher-frequency passenger trains would “stitch together the economy of the Midwest” while providing the connectedness that young people and the business community seek.

“If we want to keep the Twin Ports on the map, because we know we’ve got the quality of life here, to keep the young people, we also have to be competitive in connecting our universities, connecting our business community. A highly developed rail station with supportive zoning can be a catalyst for more economic development in the area around the station,” James said. “It’s not about the train, it’s about our economy and we’re building an economy that’s open to everyone and is accessible for everyone.”

Last month the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Northern Lights development plan. Work has also been done on an environmental assessment.

The proposal calls for four daily trips with intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley in Minnesota and Superior in Wisconsin.

Plans envision a top speed of 90 miles per hour, but an average speed of more than 60 miles per hour.

The route previously had Amtrak service that ended in April 1985 when state funding of the route lapsed. The North Star had once operated between Chicago and Duluth.

Proposed Minnesota Rail Route Clears Hurdle

March 9, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration has found that a proposed passenger rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, would have no significant impact on the environment.

That finding will enable the Minnesota Department of Transportation to seek federal and state funding for the 152-mile Northern Lights Express.

The proposed service, which would use BNSF tracks, is expected to cost between $500 to $600 million and make intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, and Hinckley, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.

Studies have projected the trains would generate 700,000 to 750,000 rides in the first year of operation.

“It’s a significant hurdle because we can now work on getting an agreement with Amtrak, BNSF, and funding for final design and construction,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT’s transportation department’s project manager,

Amtrak operated a state-funded train known as the North Star on this same route until 1985.

During the 1970s, the North Star originated in Chicago for a time.

MnDOT Still Seeking to Improve Rail Service

January 17, 2018

With high-speed rail now sidetracked, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is moving ahead to study increasing the number of stations served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

MnDOT said that increasing Amtrak service and speeding up the existing service between the city urban areas remains a priority.

“There are slow spots along the corridor that if we put some infrastructure investment in, will allow the trains to go through at faster speeds,” said MnDOT passenger rail director Dan Krom.

“Even with a second train, we’re looking at reducing the travel time and shorter dwell times at the stations [by] addressing some of these choke points along the corridor.”

After being prodded by two Minnesota legislatures earlier this month, MnDOT shelved a study of high-speed rail between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

One component of that study was a second train on the route to supplement the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

State officials had said that the second train had not been expected to launch for another three to four years.

“What we’re really wrapping up is some operational modeling to see how the train fits in with the existing freight system,” Krom said.