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A Union Pacific passenger train, brought to Mankato in July to promote railroad safety, was filled to capacity by area residents curious to ride a portion of the route from Mankato to the Twin Cities. A statewide rail study considers the route to be among the most favorable for future passenger rail service.

File photo
The Free Press, Mankato, MN

A Mankato-to-Twin Cities passenger train continues to hold its spot in the top group of potential rail projects in Minnesota under a statewide plan nearing completion.

Connecting St. Cloud to Minneapolis offers the most potential to combine high ridership and relatively low construction costs, according to a draft report on passenger rail alternatives around the state. Routes to Mankato and three other destinations, however, join St. Cloud in what the report envisions as the “Phase I” passenger rail projects in the state.

“I think this is another sign of Mankato’s growing regional stature,” said state Rep. Terry Morrow, who served on an advisory committee involved in the study.

The report also makes clear it won’t be simple or inexpensive to set up passenger rail, even though the vast majority of Phase I routes use existing freight rail corridors. The report details billions of dollars of investment needed to build even the first-phase projects and millions of dollars in operating subsidies to keep the trains running each year.

“It’s going to be a long time,” Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said of the possibility of the rail project actually getting built. “But it’s a first step.”

Strong interest?

Hentges concedes to some surprise that Mankato, with its relatively modest population compared to the other cities on the Phase I list, is projected to generate 228,000 riders a year by 2030.

“Considering our population base, there seems to be a fair amount of demand,” he said, attributing that both to Mankato’s growth as a regional center and to Minnesota State University’s expanding enrollment and its high percentage of students from the Twin Cities.

Morrow, who sponsored legislation that prompted the consultants to look at Mankato as a possible passenger rail route, said ridership could actually be higher than the estimate. That’s because the 228,000 projected riders includes only those traveling between Mankato and the Twin Cities on the four daily trains. So riders boarding in St. Peter, Le Sueur and other possible stops on the route would add to the total.

But the costs are daunting. The report estimates it will take $5.1 billion over 20 years to get the state’s freight rail system operating at an acceptable level and another $6.2 billion to build the Phase I passenger rail system.

The report assumes substantial federal assistance with the state’s share being paid off over decades through bond sales.

High costs

Even the most favorable routes carry some sticker shock. The St. Cloud passenger rail service — running eight trains a day to Minneapolis carrying a projected 1 million riders a year — would cost $218 million to build and $23 million a year to operate. Fares would cover $16 million of the operating costs with $7 million in subsidies required.

“This service has clear, outstanding performance,” the report states.

High-speed passenger train service from the Twin Cities to Chicago — eight trains daily running at speeds of more than 110 mph — would be very expensive to construct but is projected to generate enough riders to actually run a profit. Not only are no subsidies projected for that route, it could potentially subsidize operational costs on other routes, according to the report.

It would cost $689 million to build the Minnesota portion of the route, which would attract an estimated 1.6 million passengers annually if the existing Amtrak alignment along the Mississippi River is used. The cost would be more than $1.1 billion if Rochester is added to the route.

Connecting the Twin Cities to Duluth, Mankato and Fargo are also projected as Phase I passenger rail projects. The Duluth route would be high speed and would cost $990 million, generating 430,000 riders. The Fargo and Mankato routes, like the St. Cloud service, would run trains at speeds of 79 to 90 mph and would cost $120 million and $223 million to build, respectively, the report states.

The Fargo route — running two daily trains — would cost $10 million to operate with fares paid by 36,000 annual riders covering 20 percent of the cost. The Mankato service would have operational expenses of $14 million a year, and fares from the 228,000 riders would cover 29 percent of that.

Remaining potential routes — including Willmar/Sioux Falls and Worthington/Sioux City, Iowa, (via Mankato) — were deemed not worthy of further study. Routes to Eau Claire, Wis., and Northfield/Albert Lea were listed as Phase II projects to be constructed at some future date after the Phase 1 projects were up and running.

First, or final, step?

Hentges said he thinks there’s some potential for the passenger rail system to be built, noting that he remembers when the North Star Commuter Rail Line to Big Lake was just an idea being pushed by suburbs northwest of Minneapolis. The $320 million 40-mile route began operating recently.

“It’s very timely with the opening of North Star,” Hentges said. “The success of that corridor may generate the interest in expanding the system more quickly.”

Hentges believes Mankato is facing one disadvantage in competition with other potential routes: no major cities farther down the line that could serve as allies in getting passenger rail moving southwest of the Twin Cities.

“We’re kind of the final stop on the line,” he said.

And there’s always the possibility that the rail study, which will be presented to the Legislature early next year, is destined to collect dust on a shelf in some transportation department storage room.

Morrow doesn’t think so.

The consultants and others involved did an impressive job, he said. And there’s a real possibility that rising costs for gasoline, concerns about pollution, growing congestion on highways and rising expenses for maintaining the highway system might make rail increasingly attractive.

“You hear a good deal at the Capitol about studies: If you want to kill or put off an idea, you study it,” Morrow said. “This, I think, is an exception to that.”

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