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Duluth-Minneapolis rail proposal draws intrigue and skepticism

Richard Stewart and Tony Barrett support the proposed Northern Lights Express high-speed rail line, but the local educators are skeptical of some aspects of the project.

Richard Stewart and Tony Barrett support the proposed Northern Lights Express high-speed rail line, but the local educators are skeptical of some aspects of the project.

From billions anticipated in economic activity to thousands of new jobs, Minnesota 2020, a public-policy advocacy group, predicted a multitude of positive impacts associated with the $400 million project during a Wednesday news conference in Duluth.

The projections for the 150-mile rail line are based on a ridership of 200,000 passengers per year from Duluth to Minneapolis, according to an estimate by the research company TEMS, and as many as 900,000 passengers per year for points between the two cities.

Stewart wonders whether people will find the train convenient enough, and Barrett wonders whether the Duluth-Minneapolis fare will be as affordable as advertised.

The computer-generated ridership estimate took into account population density and people's travel routines, said Bob Manzoline, chairman of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance. The estimate also used similar markets in Massachusetts and the Carolinas that have rail service as a gauge for real-world numbers.

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Stewart, director of the University of Wisconsin-

Superior's Transportation and Logistics Research Center, questions whether there are adequate travel options from the last train stop to the passenger's final destination.

If there aren't options -- buses, taxis, rental cars -- then taking your car is often more accessible, Stewart said.

"Whatever the methodology, there are X number of riders who are people with sunk costs in their automobiles, so their question is, 'Does it go to my destination?' " Stewart asked.

Those people with "sunk costs" in their cars -- they already own and insure them, so they might as well drive them -- are spending only $45 on gas for a trip to the Cities and back at 20 miles per gallon burning $3 gas. Add in parking and wear and tear, and it still might cost less than a train ticket.

"It [train travel] has to be advantageous to not take your car," Stewart said.

The estimated cost of round trip ticket from Duluth to Minneapolis will be $72, with cheaper ticket packages to be available.

"My perspective as a potential customer is, 'That's all?' " said Barrett, a College of St. Scholastica economics professor. "As an economist, I wonder if they are going to cover their costs. These large projects have such high capital investments with start-up costs; you have to have the ability to pay. As an economist, it sounds too great."

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A 12- to 18-month environmental study must be completed before the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance can ask the state Legislature for $75 million in the 2010 bonding bill. The remaining $320-330 million will come from the federal government.

Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins, is the projected final stop in Minneapolis, with connecting light-rail routes available to the international airport and the Mall of America and future light-rail routes to St. Paul and Anoka, among other destinations.

"This will be an alternative for some people, not for all," alliance member Ken Buehler said.

St. Louis County also will soon conduct a $140,000 study to identify alternative transportation options at Duluth's final stop, the Depot at 506 W. Michigan St., Manzoline said.

"With these mega projects, especially rail, the government underestimates the cost and overestimates riders," said Russ Stewart, a former Duluth city councilor. "So for me, it's difficult to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of a proponent. I'm not saying 200,000 aren't realistic, but I'm skeptical."

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