Q: Why are the Plan’s cost estimates so much different than some project’s figures?
A: The State Rail Plan uses high-level and all-encompassing assumptions for its costs, rather than detailed project-level engineering and targeted, refined operating scenarios. This is because of a need to (A) use a consistent and comparable measure for all rail corridors being considered, for data-driven evaluation, and (B) include all potential project components that might be considered in order to qualify all possible investments into the State Rail Plan for Federal qualifying for future funding applications. If these projects are not in the Plan, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will not consider them. Example is NLX corridor, where Plan assumes associated replacement of four major bridges, while Northern Lights Express (NLX) planners in cooperation with BNSF Railway have defined a project that will defer any major bridge replacements. Other major overall cost differences include the per mile cost of signal and track upgrades including Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) and Positive Train Control (PTC), and in the case of the Rochester Greenfield route, the cost of right-of-way acquisition.
Q: Is the Plan going to prioritize which project or route to build first?
A: The State Rail Plan in its publicly-vetted Vision and Principles recognizes that the state’s best interest lies in producing a viable, sustainable, and comprehensive system of routes, hubbing out of the Twin Cities and connecting with Chicago and the major Regional Trade Centers. It also recognizes that ridership and utility will only be enhanced when a fully coordinated system and good travel options exist, but that each current project is at a different state of readiness. The FRA guidelines and requirements for project approval will be the final determination of what is funded and built. In that context, MnDOT intends to pursue all viable projects simultaneously, developing the system in incremental steps as readiness and funding opportunities dictate.
Q: What projects have we already applied for and what is their status?
A: MnDOT has been involved with its partners in applying for Stimulus and High Speed Rail funds for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) to fund environmental assessment and initial planning of the Twin Cities connection, St. Paul Union Depot project completion, and the BNSF Third Main project (North Minneapolis capacity improvement, essential for Northstar Phase II and NLX). We are waiting for FRA announcements of first round awards in late December or early 2010. MnDOT is also preparing for second round applications for MWRRI Corridor Planning funds, NLX Corridor funding, and Minnesota Regional System planning, environmental, and engineering funding.
Q: What is the status of the governance review?
A: The primary issues are to provide resources and a structure to allow the State and its regional and local partners to move ahead together toward the envisioned system of passenger and freight rail improvements and services. This could take many forms, but especially needs a centralized focus, an objective process, and consistent and strong advocacy by all parties toward a common goal. While other region’s practices and the possible options for Minnesota have been raised in the Plan, no distinct direction has been identified during public review. The discussion needs to continue with stakeholders and the Legislature.
Q: Is the high-speed passenger rail system beneficial given its estimated costs?
A: The State Rail Plan has determined that the option for a high-capacity, high-speed rail transportation is not only desirable, but affordable and even preferred as fuel prices rise and larger volumes of travelers shift to an available rail system. It continues to potentially offer us faster, more economical alternatives in the near future to automobile and air travel on intercity corridors of 100-500 miles with sufficient density and demand. Part of the answer in making this a cost effective program is an intentional, well-planned and incremental approach to building the regional and national system similar to the Interstate System of highways. Minnesota will positively benefit from expanded transportation options including high speed trains that tie into the emerging national rail system and use of the best available technologies, designs and operating methods.
Q: How will the plan address the homeland security and anti-terrorist need for rail infrastructure and passenger security and screening as compared to airline security levels?
A: Amtrak and Homeland Security are aware of security risks at passenger stations and on trains, and are actively working on additional measures. As ridership increases, security measures may become more extensive. However, the level of risk is considered lower than comparable airline risks. A bomb on a train at ground level would be less catastrophic than a bomb in a pressurized jet at altitude, and the secondary but larger risks, such as planes being flown into buildings, is a larger factor than impacts possible from train operations.
How realistic is the idea of building out an entire system, instead of just one main corridor such as Twin Cities-Chicago?
- The system covers 100% of Metro Area and 41% of Greater Minnesota population if built out
- Growth of ridership is heavily dependent on developing a base of steady rail users, which in turn depends on the extent, coverage, frequency, reliability, speed and convenience of an integrated system of coordinated routes and schedules. Passenger transfers between routes and on through services may add from 10% to 20% in ridership (NLX, 10%; MWRRI, 20% statistics from studies), and a feeder bus system and coordinated transit services could add 10-15% ridership on certain routes (MWRRI statistic)
- A system approach also promotes direct downtown services (Minneapolis and St. Paul), key suburban stops and options for all-day travel to a variety of destinations. For example, service through the Twin Cities would allow travelers from Duluth to proceed on a High Speed Rail service to Chicago and on to Cleveland in a completed system, possibly even with a single seat ride
- Wisconsin and the other partners in the nine-state MWRRI compact are all supportive of this approach, and it reflects the national vision as well
Q: Aren’t these costs too high and unaffordable?
A: Costs will be refined as projects develop, and the State Rail Plan uses conservative methodology and estimates, but the system is both affordable and cost effective given the benefits. We are still in the formative stage of federal funding and grant formulas, partnership agreements with stakeholders and railroads, political commitments and project development. Most of the 18 states operating regional rail services fund operating subsidies out of general funds, and show a bipartisan and heavily supportive recognition that rail transportation is important to their overall transportation systems and economic health. Other modes are more heavily subsidized, such as the federal air transportation budget of $12-15 billion annually.
Q: What are next steps, in particular to determine the Chicago Route?
A: MnDOT in its leadership role will need to pursue environmental assessments and preliminary engineering on at least four of the six system corridors, including Milwaukee-Twin Cities. This will include an FRA-directed alternatives analysis that will determine which route should receive the next grants for development. This work is intended to be completed in partnership with Wisconsin by September 2010.
Q: Is there support for freight improvements in Minnesota?
There is significant public, industry, union, and political support for the freight aspects of the Plan. This includes legislative representatives who have been active with area shortlines and with the State Rail Plan itself. There is also a clear recognition that freight rail is essential to Minnesota, needs increased capacity and needs improvement to support the overlay of an effective and fluid passenger rail network.
- Passenger Rail Forum
- Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan
- More about Passenger Rail and Freight
- Federal Railroad Administration
Passenger Rail Initiatives