Donald Trump is making huge promises about rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Does that include trains?
Photo: Minnesota is currently served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, which runs between Chicago and Seattle and Portland. CC/Flickr/Loco Steve
By Sam Brodey : MinnPost : April 24, 2017
There’s no question that the one-time real estate tycoon wants to build up the country’s infrastructure, and he’s aiming to build big: Trump and his aides have floated a $1 trillion infrastructure package, an idea viewed favorably by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In his grand designs on U.S. infrastructure, though, Trump will have to come to grips with the third rail of transportation: trains.
Across the country, from commuter light rail projects to high-speed passenger trains, rail projects have become political lightning rods, getting bogged down in partisan bickering while road and bridge improvements remain priority projects for most federal and state authorities.
Trump has said repeatedly that he hopes to bolster all kinds of rail projects, but train advocates are skeptical, and see in the president’s new budget proposal the same old focus on car infrastructure — a focus that comes at the expense of certain key elements of the rail network.
In Minnesota, there are several major rail projects picking up steam, from the proposed Southwest Light Rail to a passenger train between the Twin Cities and Duluth. As they approach critical funding junctures, will Trump keep these trains on track — or derail them?
‘The high-speed rail president’
Trump’s big proclamations on infrastructure mirror those of the last president, Barack Obama, who made transit improvements a key element of his $830 billion stimulus package to jolt the economy after the 2008 financial crisis.
The stimulus dedicated $48 billion to transit projects, which included $8 billion for major passenger rail initiatives and $1.3 billion for the country’s main passenger rail operator, Amtrak.
But through the Obama years, rail grew more politically charged in states like Minnesota, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over funding for rail versus road infrastructure.
That’s why some are surprised at Trump’s embrace of the kinds of big-ticket, big-budget rail projects Republicans have been slamming Democrats for over the past eight years.
In his first 100 days in office, Trump has gone out of his way to publicly declare his support for rail. In a meeting with airline executives, the president bemoaned the lack of top-notch train transit in the U.S.
“You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” he told them. “We don’t have one. I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train.”
When the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited Washington, Trump reportedly asked him about high-speed rail. Abe later said that he believed Trump would make significant investments in that kind of transit.
Trump’s transit team also identified in a document, which was shared with press, 50 infrastructure projects that would be prioritized in any funding plan. Eight of them involved some type of rail transport. (None was in Minnesota.)
All of this has encouraged the press, from mainstream newspapers to the Trump-loving outlet Breitbart, to muse that Trump could be “the high-speed rail president,” snatching that mantle from Obama. (The conservative RedState blog recoiled at Trump’s pro-rail declarations, grousing, “if you liked TrumpCare, you’re gonna love TrumpRail.”)
Red flags in Trump’s budget
However, some are looking past Trump’s talk and finding signs that the president could usher in a darker era for train travel in the U.S.
The budget blueprint released by the White House in March requests from Congress a 13 percent cut in federal transportation funding, all of which comes from nonroad sources, like rail. It would entirely eliminate federal support of long-haul Amtrak routes and certain regional rail projects, among other things.
Trump’s budget is unlikely to become law, but it’s a statement of the administration’s priorities, and it will press Congress to act on some of them. If the document is any indication, rail is not one of the White House’s priorities, and that has significant implications for the handful of rail projects that are being considered in Minnesota.
Currently, state authorities are in the middle of planning two major new passenger rail routes: one connecting the Twin Cities with Duluth, and one connecting the Twin Cities with Chicago, with stops in Wisconsin and southern Minnesota in between.
The former, called the Northern Lights Express, has been in the works since 2009, and it is the closest to being ready for construction. It would run on a 152-mile stretch of existing track between downtown Duluth and Target Field, in Minneapolis, with potential stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior, Wisconsin.
Averaging 60 miles per hour — and topping out at 90 — the Northern Lights Express aims to make the Duluth-Minneapolis run in 2½ hours, roughly the amount of time it takes to hike up I-35 in a car, without traffic.
The capital cost of the project is estimated somewhere between $600 and $650 million, and state transportation officials expect that the federal government would carry 80 percent of those costs. It would be up to the involved state governments — Minnesota and possibly Wisconsin — to cover the train’s operating costs.
With proposed round-trip fares hovering around $70, revenue from fares could easily cover up to 90 percent of operating costs, says Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The issue is getting capital investment from the feds, which advocates say is an uncertain prospect. They realize they have work to do, but they believe they have a strong case to make that the project is feasible and will provide positive economic impact.
Frank Ongaro, director of Intergovernmental Relations with St. Louis County, says that when environmental impact proceedings are completed in July, the Northern Lights will be “shovel-ready.”
“The timing is probably perfect for us,” he told MinnPost. “This project alone will create 3,100 jobs during the construction phase, jobs that currently don’t exist in rural Minnesota.”
Duluth City Council Member Elissa Hansen told the Duluth News Tribune that Northern Lights is “positioned better than any rail project in Minnesota and compared to some other national ones as well. My hope is that the federal government sees this as a true public-private partnership.”
Service to Chicago, and points west
The other big rail project in MnDOT’s docket, dedicated service to Chicago, is only in the initial stages of the planning process.
They propose instituting a daily round trip between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Chicago’s Union Station, with stops in Milwaukee, central Wisconsin, and southern Minnesota cities like Winona and Red Wing.
That track is already serviced once a day in each direction by Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, which runs between Chicago and either Seattle or Portland, Oregon. At about 2,200 miles, it’s the second-longest route that Amtrak operates, and it cuts diagonally through Minnesota, from Winona through the Twin Cities and up to Fargo, with stops in between.
According to MnDOT’s Krom, ridership patterns on the Empire Builder have led officials to believe there’s a good case to be made for a train that solely runs the Twin Cities to Chicago route. About 450,000 people ride the Empire Builder every year — a lower total than most Amtrak routes — but Krom says that Amtrak often adds an additional passenger car or two when the train picks up Twin Cities passengers heading to Chicago. (He says around 150,000 Minnesotans rode Empire Builder last year.)
With a dedicated Twin Cities-Chicago train, Minnesotans looking to travel to Wisconsin and Chicago would have more options. But there’s a problem, Krom says, and it’s in Trump’s budget.
“What I’ve read of Trump’s framework for transportation,” he explains, “again, none of this is set in stone, but his interest is in shifting support for Amtrak that Congress provides from long-distance service trains like Empire Builder to corridor service trains.”
Indeed, Trump’s budget would cut funding for long-haul trains like Empire Builder, effectively killing them because they rely on federal cash. So, Krom says, there’s a scenario under which the Twin Cities-Chicago train moves ahead, but the Empire Builder is axed for good.
There’s also another scenario: “The only service we have is the Empire Builder, and if we don’t have state support and federal support to do the second train specifically between the Twin Cities and Chicago, we’d have no rail service,” Krom says.
Train advocates say that’s bad news. According to Laura Kliewer at the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a rail advocacy group, “We just have some educating to do of the administration to help them understand how important intercity passenger rail is to our communities across the region and the country. Long-distance service is a critical lifeline for our nation.” (And, according to Krom, about 40 Minnesota Amtrak employees would lose their jobs if Trump’s budget went forward.)
In the past, there has been support in Congress for slashing Amtrak’s budget, and critics point out that eliminating its longer-haul routes would save federal cash. Kliewer’s organization sent a letter to Midwestern members of Congress asking them to oppose any cuts to long-haul train service. It points out that five Minnesota cities, along with the Twin Cities area, would be among 50 Midwestern cities and towns to entirely lose passenger rail service if cuts proceed.
“Even if a town has just one stop daily in each direction, long‐distance trains are an essential service to many rural communities,” the letter states. “Trains provide connections within and between regions, and economic development opportunities.”
In the shorter term, there’s a real concern that MnDOT won’t be able to do any passenger rail work, at all. “The Legislature’s transportation bill zeros out our programs,” Krom says. “Unless there’s an agreement between the Legislature and the governor, the office may not exist. Efforts from the state in passenger rail have a shelf life, in a few years they’d have to be replicated.”
“Add in the uncertainty at the federal level with funding,” Krom says, “and it doesn’t bode well for more passenger service in Minnesota.”
The state of Twin Cities rail
Uncertainty at the state level has typically been a feature of light rail planning in Minnesota. On the other hand, for projects like the Southwest Light Rail and the Bottineau Blue Line, the promise of federal funding has been steady in recent years.
Trump may scramble that dynamic, with D.C. replacing St. Paul as the main source of angst for light rail advocates in the Twin Cities. “There’s more uncertainty in Washington than there is at the state level,” says Adam Duininck, chair of the Metropolitan Council.
The president’s budget proposes cutting the federal grant programs that fund SWLRT and the Blue Line expansion project, that haven’t signed full-funding agreements yet with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Minnesota authorities are close to a full-funding agreement with Washington for SWLRT, having secured last year the $135 million in state contributions needed for it to proceed. Once the agreement is completed, $900 million in federal support over nearly a decade would be all but locked in.
Perhaps realizing time is running out, staunch opponents of SWLRT, led by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, sent a letter in March to U.S. DoT secretary Elaine Chao asking her to deny funding for the project. Gov. Mark Dayton sent a counterletter in April to Chao reiterating support for it.
Duininck says he is confident SWLRT will move forward, and that the federal grant program supporting it will continue to exist, regardless of what Trump’s budget says.
“The second question is what the Trump administration does on a project-by-project basis,” he says. “Where does Congress and the president meet in terms of sorting this all out could have a big impact on future projects here in the region.”
Duininck says that the Bottineau project, to extend the Blue Line 13 miles into Brooklyn Park, is lower in the feds’ queue, and might be more vulnerable to major changes in Washington. In January, the Federal Transit Administration advanced the project so that it is one step away from the full-funding agreement stage. The feds would cover roughly half of the $1.5 billion project.
Even if SWLRT and Bottineau proceed unscathed, Duininck is disappointed with the direction of Trump’s budget.
“It’s troubling because what it signals to me is that the rhetoric won’t match the budget,” he says. “So much rhetoric about jobs and connecting people to jobs that if the Trump administration decides not to fund programs like these, I think it’s going to have a significant impact on our region.”