It’s no longer all aboard among the local governments attempting to rev up support for a ‘high speed’ rail line from the Twin Cities to Duluth. The Anoka County Regional Rail Authority today voted 4-3 to get off the Northern Lights Express (NLX) and withdraw from the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, effective in 90 days.
“We have taken a look at the information and frankly, we are not willing to gamble with the taxpayers’ dollars on a passenger rail system where I believe the studies and numbers just don’t add up,” said Rhonda Sivarajah, Anoka County Board chair and Regional Railroad Authority member. Commissioners Look, Sivarajah, West and Westerberg voted yes on withdrawal, while Commissioners Erhart, Kordiak and LeDoux voted to continue on the project.
The practical and political impact of Anoka County’s withdrawal on the viability of NLX, which has an estimated price tag of $650 million–$1 billion, will take time to assess. In the short term, Anoka County will save about $55,000 in annual dues to the rail alliance. In the long term, Anoka County residents could save a minimum of $10 million in construction costs, if and when the passenger rail line receives approval.
“It’s very easy to say you support a project when other communities are paying the lion’s share of the cost,” said Sivarajah. “If these other communities truly believe NLX is a wise investment, they may have to invest more now.”
In a letter, NLX officials thanked Anoka County for its participation and indicated the project would continue to move ahead. “The loss of Anoka County’s funding contribution, 15% of the overall 2012 budget, will not prevent the project from completing its planned 2013 activities. We hope Anoka County will consider joining the effort again in 2014,” said Steve Raukar, chair of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance.
Conflicting reports and ridership projections have clouded the proposed 155 mile long rail route’s prospects from the start. Proponents claim NLX would draw 400-800,000 passengers a year, spark $2 billion in economic development and “encourage” 13,800 jobs.
At the same time, a controversial 2010 economic analysis that was eventually spiked by MnDOT concluded the Twin Cities-Duluth HSR (High Speed Rail) Corridor has a low benefit-cost ratio with a return of just 27-35 cents for every government dollar spent. A follow up report projects an operating subsidy of between $37-83 per passenger.
Preliminary engineering on the controversial NLX line has begun with a $5 million in federal grant and $4 million in state funding. A recent Freedom Foundation of Minnesota report revealed, however, that it’s far from all systems go—not only for NLX, but for ‘high speed’ rail projects nationwide.
Though the Obama Administration continues to support rail projects, Congress has essentially slammed the brakes on “high speed” rail. Eighth District Congressman Chip Cravaack, who represents most of the communities along the proposed NLX route, opposes the project. Proponents were hopeful of receiving funding in the 2012 state bonding bill, but came up empty handed.
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