Funds spur interest in rail transit

Minnesota is aiming to make rail a viable transit option by 2020.

Funds spur interest in rail transit

James Nord

After more than 40 years of veering off the tracks, national rail transit is pulling into the station in the upper Midwest. A nationwide resurgence of interest in rail transit has been spurred by an influx of federal funding and advocate involvement at all levels of government. Minnesota rail plans in particular stand to benefit. The state is pursuing an aggressive plan aimed at making rail a viable transit option by 2020. Developed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the plan details six major in-state and interstate rail proposals, including lines to Chicago, Duluth and Eau Claire. The plan outlines the projectâÄôs total cost to be between $6.2 billion and $9.5 billion over its duration, which could be until 2030. Funding would come from every level of government, although officials hope for significant federal support. In a dramatic increase over previous years, the federal government has provided about $11.8 billion for rail transit in 2009 and 2010, much of which came from the federal stimulus bill. Although competition for the funds is fierce, Minnesota enjoys a pleasant position as one of the few states with a comprehensive rail plan, which is a prerequisite for receiving federal assistance, said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. âÄúThe fact that [Minnesota] received money this first round is a good indicator of the stateâÄôs preparedness or position going forward,âÄù said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which doled out the original stimulus funds. The Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation received $823 million in federal stimulus funding for the Minneapolis-to-Chicago line, although the majority of the money went to Wisconsin for a line between Milwaukee and Madison, which would later be integrated into the overall route. The FRA will be accepting applications for a second piece of the $11.8 billion before spring. In MinnesotaâÄôs 2009 bonding bill, Hausman designated $26 million in state funding for MnDOT, which covers an initial cost of $10 million for the Duluth line and $16 million for the Chicago line. Hausman said these proposals moved forward more quickly than others because of heavy local involvement. This reflects a consensus among officials that coordination is required between legislators, local governments and advocates in order to realize any significant rail transit gains. Adding to the funding issue, no definite source of money for operating any of the lines when they are completed has been identified, said Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office at MnDOT. He also stressed that all estimates concerning the cost and logistics of the Minnesota rail plan are just that: estimates. âÄúItâÄôs a long process and a lot of tentacles to this monster,âÄù Krom said. âÄúFrankly, right now weâÄôre not sure what all the rules are because they havenâÄôt had a federal program in 40 years.âÄù The graphic below includes tentative descriptions of the three lines that are of interest to Minneapolis residents. Where applicable, the figures are based on high-cost estimates.