Amtrak commits $5 million toward another grant application

A second daily train to Chicago, with Minnesota stops in Saint Paul, Red Wing and Winona, is closer to reality following news May 5 of a grant worth more than $12.5 million to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. In addition, Amtrak announced May 7 that it would commit $5 million as matching funds for a federal grant application for the project.

The funds come from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Restoration and Enhancement Grants Program to initiate, restore, or enhance intercity passenger rail service around the country. A total of $22 million was awarded in three grants, including $12,569,200 for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger Rail Service Project. An FRA news release states an additional train will provide travelers with more reliable service at convenient times between Saint Paul and Chicago, with seven stops in Wisconsin.

The Great River Rail Commission, comprised of officials from 18 local and regional governments along the existing rail route in Minnesota, is pleased with the timing of the grant, according to Hastings Council Member Mark Vaughan, chair of the Great River Rail Commission.

“This grant reinforces a $10 million bonding request moving through the State Legislature right now,” Vaughan said. “If successful, those state funds can leverage more federal funds and the Second Train becomes a much needed back-to-work project for Minnesota.”

The FRA grant funds would be intended for operation of the service. Project developers will also submit a federal grant application in June for construction of track and signal improvements. This grant requires a local match – Amtrak’s committed funding, plus funding from Minnesota and Wisconsin in this legislative session would meet the requirement. With state funding and the federal construction grant, the project could be operational in less than two years.

Vaughan and the Great River Rail Commission maintain a second round-trip Amtrak passenger train between the Twin Cities and Chicago would boost the economy in a number of beneficial ways:

  • Create engineering and construction jobs to design and build $30 million in track and signal improvements around Winona and La Crescent

  • Support Minnesota businesses (as an example, Amtrak spent $60 million in goods and services in Minnesota in 2016)

  • Support tourism spending in Minnesota – 46% of all Amtrak riders are tourists

  • Connect Minnesota colleges and universities to prospective students in Wisconsin and Illinois

  • Improve safety and efficiency for freight, automobile and pedestrian movement along the tracks

  • Provide a comfortable, productive alternative mode of transportation

About the Great River Rail Commission

The Great River Rail Commission is one of the leading voices on passenger rail in Minnesota. Comprised of officials from 18 local and regional governments from St. Paul to La Crosse, the Commission advocates for the development of the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) Second Train project, a daily round trip passenger train between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The Commission’s long range vision is that the Second Train demonstrates demand for additional passenger rail service that leads to further investment in faster, more frequent passenger train service.

The Great River Rail Commission just may be part of the solution to bolster Minnesota’s economy. The timeline for a return to normalcy isn’t quite linear. However, capital investment in Minnesota’s general transportation infrastructure, even right now, might result in job creation specific to the freight rail system, and by extension, passenger rail.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 29, Sen. David Senjem, Chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, held an informational hearing about the importance of state bonding investment in Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure. The committee heard testimony regarding how such investments would restart Minnesota’s economy and create jobs. While passenger rail was not specifically addressed, investments in the freight rail system used by passenger rail trains were supported by members of the committee and the speakers.

Sen. Senjem, R-Rochester, stated the hearing would be a discussion about stimulating Minnesota’s economy with transportation infrastructure investments and not about specific projects. Five witnesses were on the agenda to speak to the committee and answer questions.

These witnesses included Bentley Graves, from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce; Jason George, from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49; John Hausladen, from the Minnesota Truckers Association; Kathleen Harrington, from the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce; and Mike Beard, from the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority.

According to Graves the Minnesota Chamber has been a long-time supporter of leveraging state funds for various transportation projects. When Sen. Senjem asked which modes he thought were most important, Graves responded that it depends on the region. The most vital type could be highways, bridges, transit or freight. Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher pointed out that MnDOT is also concerned about safety at rail crossings.

Another concern was voiced by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who inquired as to the effects of COVID19 on transportation revenue. Jason George spoke up, beginning with the fact that his union has enjoyed full employment since 2016, even adding 400 members last year. According to George the 49ers have been working safely through the COVID19 limitations and are ready for more transportation projects. Sen. Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, asked whether revenue decline would delay such projects already programmed. Commissioner Anderson Kelliher said MnDOT can deliver all the projects programmed this year, but that a long-term, sustainable funding source is needed.

Witness John Hausladen described the importance of freight movement by trucks and well-maintained roads and bridges for expediency. Kathleen Harrington then spoke about the importance of regional airports to small city economies, pitching a runway improvement project for the Rochester International Airport. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, reminded the committee about public transit.

Mike Beard from the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority brought up the value of preserving and improving freight rail lines, especially short lines that serve a small industrial center or manufacturer. Beard described two federal grants submitted to modernize and improve a rail line that will move farm products, improving farming profits and incentivizing a shuttle service. He also highlighted local match funding for federal grants, a more expedient option than waiting for the legislature.

Augmenting Beard’s advocacy for freight rail lines, The Great River Rail Commission seeks to increase freight rail capacity along the corridor. Speaking to Commissioner Anderson Kelliher’s concern, the Commission also looks to increase safety for rail and highway users. But a main focus of the Commission is to bolster economic development in the state, especially in the Minnesota portion of the corridor between the Twin Cities and La Crescent. That goal could be achieved by providing a second daily round-trip passenger train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Sen. Pappas asked Sen. Senjem about the timeline to introduce the Senate bonding bill. Sen. Senjem stated that he is not aware of any targets but introduction of a bonding bill is imminent. Transportation is vital to Minnesota jobs and the economy and will be prominent in the bonding bill. - May 8, 2020

The Minnesota Legislature is right to focus on addressing the coronavirus crisis right now, but soon they will turn to talks of how to jump-start the economy with a robust Capital Investment Bill. We, the Great River Rail Commission, believe the Twin-Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Second Train project will do this by putting Minnesotans back to work.

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