The federal transportation bill that finally became law last week keeps the wheels on highway funding, construction jobs and public transit programs, but appears to derail passenger rail projects like the proposed $1 billion Northern Lights Express (NXL) line from the Twin Cities to Duluth—at least for now.
The development bolsters the recent decision by the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority to rescind financial support and pull out of the 155 mile proposed NLX line, which parallels a defunct and failed Amtrak line shut down in 1986.
"These projects are financially unsustainable. There’s not enough advocates to spend that amount of money on the federal level to support these projects. The bottom line is that Anoka County is ahead of the game. The federal government is catching up to what Anoka County has already decided," said Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, chair of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority.
The $105 billion Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (the official title of the federal transportation funding legislation, or MAP-21) includes no mention of high speed rail funding through the 2014 fiscal year, according to lobbyists and government officials who have combed through the 599-page bill.
The legislation is "a return to a 1950s highway-heavy emphasis", according to Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, a Twin Cities advocacy group. "The deal also eliminates a critical passenger rail program and eliminates the Senate’s efforts to establish new national freight policies."
A curt statement posted on the American High Speed Rail Alliance website noted, "This bill will allow funding continuity for 27 months. To be continued..."
For now, NLX remains on life support, sustained by $9 million in state and federal funding already in the pipeline.
"I am grateful that there are finally people in Congress who are willing to say "no" when "no" is the right answer," said Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah, chair of the Anoka County Board and NLX opponent. "We cannot continue to spend money we don't have on projects we don't need."
Local and state transportation officials say preliminary engineering, environmental and mapping work underway allows NLX to literally buy time until the next federal transportation bill comes up in 2014.
"The next reauthorization in 2014 will be critical for our projects, as well as other continuing efforts such as California HSR (High Speed Rail), based on whether additional funding or an ongoing program is authorized at that time," said Dave Christianson, project manager for MnDOT. "If no new funding appears at that time, the PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act) and ARRA stimulus will end with very limited results."
In the meantime, NLX officials continue to quietly wage a public relations campaign, updating city and county officials on the project’s progress and potential. They pitch NLX as the most "shovel-ready" passenger rail project in the nation and claim the $1 billion construction price tag would not require an operating subsidy within two years of starting up.
"We are hoping to have our first rider in 2015," Ken Buehler, NLX technical advisory committee chair told the Cambridge City Council in March. "2015 might be a stretch, but it’s possible if Congress passes a six-year transportation bill next year and there’s high speed passenger rail funding in it."
A document on the NXL website even contends the controversial project can be "completed without congressional action" by following the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) process. "There was, and still is, funding within FRA (Federal Rail Administration) and AMTRAK to initiate new passenger rail services throughout the country," Bob Manzoline, executive director of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, told FFM.
Supporters of the rail line maintain that this project is the "most shovel-ready passenger rail [line] in the country". Yet, without state or federal funds, final approval of the project remains questionable -- at least until after this year's elections.