Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Northern Lights Express

Proposed passenger rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth, MN


Environmental update - February 2017

For the past several months, MnDOT, in consultation with the Federal Railroad Administration and in cooperation with the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance and Wisconsin Department of Transportation, has been working on the Tier 2 Project Level Environmental Assessment for the NLX Project. The Tier 2 EA builds on the NLX Tier 1 Service Level EA prepared in 2013, and addresses specific project-related issues and likely environmental effects associated with proposed track infrastructure, stations, and layover and maintenance facilities. Recent work activities have included:

  • Conducting field reviews throughout the corridor, updating the technical analysis from the Tier 1 EA
  • Coordinating with reviewing agencies in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Tier 2 Project Level EA is scheduled to be released for public review in spring 2017. During the public review period, MnDOT will be holding public meetings in the NLX Corridor to review the findings of the technical analysis. Specific details regarding where the Tier 2 Project Level EA document will be available for review and how to provide comments will be provided in early spring 2017. Following the public review and comment period, the FRA will issue a final environmental determination for the NLX Project.

Hinckley Loop study completed - June 2016

In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and its partners, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, initiated the Northern Lights Express Hinckley Loop Study. The study explored the possibility of constructing a direct passenger rail connection and station at Grand Casino Hinckley, rather than operating NLX on the existing BNSF railway, with a station in downtown Hinckley. Since an earlier ridership study suggested a more than 50 percent increase in ridership and a substantial increase in revenue, MnDOT felt it prudent to further investigate this concept.

The Hinckley Loop Study investigated several potential routes and determined potential costs and benefits of a direct connection and a station at the casino. These findings were then compared to the potential costs and benefits of NLX operations remaining on the BNSF railway and the construction of a station in downtown Hinckley.

The updated ridership forecasts found that implementation of the options considered in the Hinckley Loop study would increase overall ridership for the NLX Project by up to seven percent – much less than previous forecasts – however, the capital cost of the project would have increased by up to $87 million. Although the direct service to the casino would increase the overall ridership, the roughly 15 percent increase in capital cost outweighs the ridership benefit. As a result, MnDOT, in agreement with the FRA and the Alliance, has determined that the Hinckley Loop is no longer an option and has discontinued further study of the concept.

Outreach activities kick off next phase of environmental work - June 2016

Outreach activities for the Northern Lights Express Project held earlier this year helped to kick off the Tier 2 Project Level environmental review phase; activities included open houses, meetings with agencies in Wisconsin and Minnesota and presentations to local business associations and community groups.

The four open houses were held in February and March 2016. The open house in Fridley provided an opportunity for interested stakeholders to discuss the Target Field Station and Coon Rapids Station. The Duluth open house served as a venue for those interested in the stations in Duluth and Superior. Additional open houses were hosted at other station sites in Cambridge and Hinckley. More than 100 community members and local media attended the open houses and viewed draft concepts for the selected station and maintenance facility sites and potential layover sites. Information on the Tier 2 Project Level environmental review phase was also presented. Overall, attendees expressed support for the NLX project and had questions on the cost of fares, schedule and potential impacts. Participants at the Hinckley open house voiced agreement for discontinuing the Hinckley Loop study. Meeting materials and a summary of the open houses.

Outreach activities will continue throughout the summer, including presentations and informational tables provided by the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance. Keep an eye out for NLX information at upcoming county fairs in Isanti, Pine, Carlton and St. Louis counties.

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