High-speed passenger rail plan still on track

Cambridge remains a potential station stop in the Northern Lights Express rail project. Also proposed is new dedicated track that would run parallel to the existing track between Isanti and Hinckley.

(CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE) Cambridge remains a potential station stop in the Northern Lights Express rail project. Also proposed is new dedicated track that would run parallel to the existing track between Isanti and Hinckley.

A public hearing and open house on the proposed high-speed passenger rail service from Minneapolis to Duluth generated both enthusiasm and pause April 4 at the Armed Forces Readiness and Community Center in Cambridge.

The public was invited to learn more and formally comment on what’s called the Tier 1 Service Level Environmental Assessment for the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) project, a 155-mile rail service. Trains could reach speeds of at least 110 mph in certain areas. Station stops in Cambridge, Coon Rapids, Hinckley and Superior, Wis., are part of the plan.

Estimated at costing between $800 million to $950 million, the project — considered a high priority at the national level — is about five to six years out, pending political green lights. If approved, the federal government is anticipated to cover 80 percent of the project cost.

The project proposes a new dedicated track parallel to existing track between Isanti and Hinckley; new parallel railroad bridges over three creeks and rivers, including Snake River at Grasston; shorter segments of parallel track for NLX in larger cities; freight siding extensions at several locations along the corridor; replacement of existing railroad bridges over two creeks; rehab of existing railroad bridges over 14 rivers; and safety improvements at grade crossings and along the corridor.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation prepared the environmental assessment, which was released last month, in consultation with the Federal Railroad Administration, Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance and Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

While the issue of the day dealt with environmental analysis, people could view some of the main details of the rail project through information and maps displayed on poster boards. Photo by Jon Tatting

While the issue of the day dealt with environmental analysis, people could view some of the main details of the rail project through information and maps displayed on poster boards. Photo by Jon Tatting

MnDOT and staff from the rail alliance were on hand to answer questions at the open house in Cambridge. A court reporter also was available for those who wanted to provide formal oral comments on the assessment for public record. MnDOT will use the comments to help determine if further environmental study is needed.

The environmental assessment documents the purpose and need of the project, along with the anticipated service-wide social, economic and environmental effects. These effects relate to land use, right of way, transportation, vegetation, wildlife, water resources, air quality, noise, vibration, contamination, soils, farmland, parks and trails.

The assessment sets the foundation for further environmental analysis to be completed as additional design details are developed. When approved at the federal level, the engineering for the NLX project can begin.

Project schedule

The Tier 1 environmental assessment evaluates the corridor-wide and overall effects of the NLX project, along with identifying the alignment, to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

One of the many posterboards on display at the open house was one defining high speed rail.

(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE) One of the many posterboards on display at the open house was one defining high speed rail.

The next step is to conduct Tier 2 Project Level environmental studies and preliminary engineering for specific corridor improvements. These include infrastructure improvements; station, layover and maintenance facilities; grade crossings; environmental analysis; stakeholder involvement; financial planning documentation; ridership analysis; benefit/cost analysis; and identification of equipment

The preliminary engineering/NEPA work will be carried out during the next two to three years and is expected to be completed by 2016. The conclusion of this work will result in the completion of required documentation and approvals to support final design and construction of the capital projects needed to institute rail service on the NLX line.

Feedback

Comments on the environmental assessment can be submitted at www.mndot.gov/nlx. Copies of the assessment are also available for public viewing during business hours at the Cambridge public library and Isanti County Government Center, also in Cambridge.

Written comments can be mailed prior to the close of the public comment period on Wednesday, April 17, to Julie Carr, MnDOT project manager, Minnesota Department of Transportation, 395 John Ireland Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155-1800. Carr can be reached at 651-366-3198 or Julie.carr@state.mn.us.

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