Friday, February 25, 2011

Could Minnesota receive some of Florida's (nearly) rejected rail money?

Governor Mark Dayton has been busy with meetings in Washington, D.C. in the past few days. On Thursday, he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and expressed a desire to get money for high-speed rail to Minnesota. He specifically mentioned a route to Rochester, and possibly a high-speed route to Chicago through Iowa and Illinois instead of going through Wisconsin.

[ Pioneer Press | Star Tribune (blog) | Post-Bulletin | MPR | MinnPost ]

$2.4 billion in funds may soon become available due to political machinations in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott rejected the money—intended for a 220-mph rail line between Orlando and Tampa—though there have been a number of attempts to put a halt to the governor's actions in recent days, and the governor himself has agreed to revisit the issue. Florida is also home to the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, John Mica, and Mica is interested in seeing the line move forward.

For those reasons, I'm not holding my breath about the availability of money, but Minnesota should definitely put forth some bids anyway.

I appreciate Gov. Dayton's enthusiasm, and the Zip Rail train to Rochester is a great idea—the only problem is that the project is not really ready to receive truly large sums of cash yet. A line to Rochester has been pondered for at least 20 years, so I don't want it to be put on the back burner, but there aren't any environmental studies for the route that I'm aware of. A few tens of millions of dollars (or more—the Pioneer Press mentioned a sum of $75 million) would probably be the best, to propel work forward into alternatives analysis, environmental impact statement and initial engineering—possibly along with some initial land purchases for the route. Construction is still several years off in the future even if those processes begin immediately.

The idea of a bypass route around Wisconsin is even more foggy. I'm not aware of any in-depth studies of the idea. It's not necessarily bad—going around Wisconsin as tightly as possible would probably only add about 20 miles to a route—though I have concerns about the level of population along that detour. It might be worth examining the idea of running all the way down to Iowa City before heading west, since a new rail service is being extended to there from Chicago. However, that creates a pretty huge time deficit due to distance.

Probably the best actual rail investment for Minnesota right now would be to add a third set of tracks between Minneapolis and Coon Rapids to increase capacity on the existing Northstar commuter rail route, which is shared with BNSF freight trains. This would benefit both the Northstar Line (where there are complaints about the limited level of service) and the planned Northern Lights Express line to Duluth. Mn/DOT requested about $100 million back in 2009 under the TIGER program to construct the track as well as a new train station, but it didn't receive any funding because the TIGER program got heavily overbooked and there wasn't enough funding for all of the demand out there.

Along with that third track, it would be great to get funding either for the full NLX line to Duluth (probably around $750 million for 110-mph high-speed rail) or the extension of Northstar to St. Cloud. The Northstar extension ($150 or $250 million) would probably give the greatest bang for the buck because it's already half-built and has an existing fleet of trains. However, that's only a conventional-speed service, so the line to Duluth might score more political points for going faster. The Northstar could probably get done in short order, 2-3 years, and the NLX could probably be running by 2014 if things went smoothly.

Additional train service between Chicago and the Twin Cities should also be considered as an option. It's inexcusable that we only have a single train a day each direction right now, particularly since Detroit has declined enough that the Twin Cities is now the second-biggest economic center in the Midwest (after Chicago). We should have several trains making runs each day, and we could start out with the simple act of doubling the existing service. I'm split on whether it should simply be a corridor train running the 400-odd miles to the Twin Cities, the nearly 700 miles to Fargo, or whether it should be the restored North Coast Hiawatha to Seattle—a 2,300-mile route (which would be prone to significant delays), but we should definitely have another train. A new North Coast Hiawatha would take $1 billion and 4–5 years to get going, while simply adding a train to the Twin Cities would probably take 3–4 but be less than ¼ the cost.

I've never seen an analysis conducted, but I'm pretty convinced that a conventional-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago could operate at break-even or better if it had enough runs each day and could run at or near top speed as much as possible. The Chicago and North Western "400" was able to maintain a schedule of 6.5 hours between Saint Paul and Chicago from 1955 to 1960 while operating under today's 79-mph restriction (though it got by with just 6 or 7 intermediate stops between the two cities, as opposed to the 9 stops of today's 8-hour Empire Builder). I'd like to see a conventional-speed train examined using the old 400 route from Saint Paul through Eau Claire and down to Camp Douglas, then following today's Empire Builder route to Milwaukee and Chicago. That would only be about 407 miles long yet would add the city of Eau Claire and would probably have a greater chance of getting straightened out to provide faster speeds than the Builder's current route which has to deal with the natural curves along the Mississippi River.

Getting the speed down to the historic 6 to 6.5 hours would allow two trainsets to provide 3 round-trips per day. If the speed could be improved to get a 5-hour schedule, that would increase to 4 round-trips per day, and another pair of trainsets would double that to 8. It's not at all clear to me how much all that would cost. The trainsets could cost anywhere from $100 to $200 million in total, and over 180 miles of track would need upgrading with new signals, running around $300 million, another chunk of $50–100 million to upgrade the Canadian Pacific track the Empire Builder already uses, and other miscellaneous costs would probably run $50 million. The big question would probably be capacity rights, which could skyrocket along the fairly busy tracks. Call it $600 million to start, plus more in the pipeline to continue improving track over time. This would again land in the area of 4 to 5 years to implement, I suspect.

So anyway, I think it's a good idea for Minnesota to put in some bids for the cash. We could actually suck up most or all of it to divide among all of the projects I mentioned here, though it would be extremely unlikely for us to get that big of a chunk.

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