With Traffic Congestion Worsening, Build the NLX Between Minneapolis and Duluth


Editor’s note: This article appeared originally on December 14, 2022 in the Duluth News-Tribune.

According to projections from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and other federal agencies, the entire length of Interstate 35 between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports will become “highly congested” with “stop-and-go conditions” possibly by 2035.

Instead of adding two more lanes to Interstate 35, we should build the long-proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) train that promises to be, per mile, less expensive to taxpayers and able to transport more people per hour than could two more highway lanes.

Assuming no changes in network capacity, increases in truck and passenger vehicle traffic are forecast to expand recurring, peak- period congestion to 40 percent of the NHS in 2035 compared with 11 percent in 2002. This will slow traffic on nearly 20,000 miles of the NHS and create stop-and-go conditions on an additional 45,000 miles.
Peak-Period Congestion on the National Highway System: 2035

Even in the 1960s, highway engineers could build only one highway lane mile for every two needed to keep up with congestion. In the 2020s, I feel, it is much more difficult to build new highway lanes than it was in the 1960s.

To speak up for preventing danger to human life, toxic threats to our air quality and economic damage from road congestion along Interstate 35 and along nearby streets and roads, please contact your Minnesota legislators and ask them to pledge a firm commitment to building the safe, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly Northern Lights Express.

With expected discounts for children, veterans and senior citizens, riding the NLX promises to be a wise use of families’ limited transportation dollars.

About James Buchanan

After earning my University of Minnesota communication major and journalism minor, I am currently looking for a full-time position to use my skills in writing, photography, and page design. I am also seeking an environment that offers inspiring and new opportunities that challenge and strengthen my skill set, as well as opportunities to help my future company advance efficiently and productively. I was the top student in my Communications and Creativity class. I’m the professional artist to turn to for your creativity needs.

30 thoughts on “With Traffic Congestion Worsening, Build the NLX Between Minneapolis and Duluth

  1. Noah Whiteis

    NLX is a costly boondoggle, rural corridors are best constructed to maximize personal mobility (adding third lane in each direction). The predecessor service, Arrowhead was seldom used by anyone, having low ridership and requiring large state subsidies during its entire operation. Sure it operated on a poor timetable with a slow average speed, but I doubt that was the sole reason it failed. Most of the traffic headed towards Duluth requires personal mobility once it arrives, furthermore NLX would not serve persons with a destination beyond Duluth as well as freight.

    1. Tim Marino

      All one has to do are look at the roads on a day like today and you can realize that there are better ways to do things. Especially when it’s bad weather we shouldn’t require people to have to drive and risk their life in dangerous winter conditions in order to get to Duluth, the Twin Cities or points in between. Plus it’s not like your going very fast on a day like today anyways.

      “Sure it operated on a poor timetable with a slow average speed, but I doubt that was the sole reason it failed.” I highly disagree. If your garage only opened once in the morning, and once in the evening, could you rely on it? Frequency is everything. When only one daily trip runs, it completely hamstrings your plans. If you want to do a day trip you can only do it in one direction. And the same with an overnight trip. 4 Round trips (while still not enough) is much more reliable.

      Also as far as speed there is a huge difference between 3 and a half hours and 2 and a half hours. I’m sure you’d notice if you could drive at 60 mph versus being in traffic at 40 mph. Speed is critical. And the improved speed and reliability from NLX will also benefit freight lines which could take more trucks off the road, as well as the drivers who now have an option freeing up capacity on I-35.

      As far as mobility options when you arrive at Duluth. Things like Uber and Lyft exist, if you have friends there they can pick you up, and Duluth’s bus system isn’t terrible and I’m sure they will optimize it for making sure there are good connections available at the train station for when you arrive.

      Also this train is not just about Duluth to Twin Cities. A ton of people will use this train for trips to the casinos at Hinckley (Potentially taking drunk drivers off the road), and people in Cambridge can use it to get to bypass the dangerous MN-65 into the Twin Cities.

      Overall, this train line will be very useful and will bring economic benefits to not just Duluth, but to the cities it stops in along the way.

        1. Tim Marino

          “As far as mobility options when you arrive at Duluth. Things like Uber and Lyft exist, if you have friends there they can pick you up, and Duluth’s bus system isn’t terrible and I’m sure they will optimize it for making sure there are good connections available at the train station for when you arrive.”

          For Twin Cities we have a very good public transportation system that you can get from anywhere into downtown or for parking you can use Ramp A, B, or C and walk through the skyways to get to Target Field Station

        2. Ian R BuckModerator  

          If I’m going somewhere in town, I would use Duluth’s public transit system. If I were going somewhere along the north shore, I would use Arrowhead transit or hire a private shuttle company (there are many in the area serving camping destinations) or I would hop on my bike.

  2. David Alan Marquette

    The more stops along the way, the slower travel time overall. Frankly, I don’t think interurban or commuter rail works out so well in this application. Ironically, connecting to Rochester and its growing bio med employment and visitor base might be more compelling, plus there’s a grad student population too transiting this corridor. Rochester is on the brink of commitment to a primary BRT corridor that would provide local last mile service.

    1. John

      Big time waste of money. You talk about the cost of operation but how about the capital investment. Has anyone ever run a realistic revenue/cost analysis. How’s that Twin City metro rail working out?

      1. Tim Marino

        Our system is one of the highest ridership in the country per mile and encouraging plenty of development adding millions of dollars every year to the property tax rolls of the cities it passes through.

    2. James Patrick Buchanan

      Thank you for your support of NLX. The sooner we build this passenger railroad line, the sooner we can reap the benefits this rail line will provide for Minnesota and Wisconsin families.

  3. Scott

    I’m very excited for this project to get funded next year at the Legislature. For those who cannot drive; like seniors, students and people with disabilities; this will be a great option. Rail travel is so much more civilized because of the space provided to passengers, ability to get up and walk around and get a bite to eat. I hope to take the NLX from my home in Mpls to Duluth for vacation sometime soon since it is such a cool and walkable City. 🙂

  4. aaronkarim@gmx.com

    No more north rails , NORTHSTAR is a collossal failure Unless the stations are near high density housings this project is moot QUIT wasting money on this boondoggle

    1. Clark

      There’s a lot more dense housing in Duluth than Big Lake… And a sizable university… (St. Cloud too, now that I think about it, funny that). This would be a high (ish) speed amtrak service competing with jefferson lines (or with the prospect of sitting in traffic on 35), not an unfinished commuter line to nowhere that runs no trains. Also 80% federal funded…

    2. Steven Pfeiffer

      Northstar is a collosal failure because Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature stopped the project at it’s halfway point in Big Lake rather than it’s intended endpoint in St Cloud. It ” failed” because it was deliberately sabotaged.

  5. Eric J Scott

    First off, once you get to Duluth, is everyone expected to rent a car and/or Uber? Going “up north” means different destinations and agendas to everyone. Can’t take the boat or trailer on a train. Facts are that the rails are best for shipping freight and large scale items. There’s a reason passenger rail was eliminated, and all the nostalgia in the world, isn’t going to bring it back.

    1. Tim Marino

      Not every trip will be served by this train. But many will. There is a whole transit system in Duluth, that while not as expansive as it should be still serves the region well. If your not served by that, others will bring their bikes on the train. Or have a friend up there who can pick them up, or they can get an Uber.

      If your going farther up north it probably makes sense to drive. But for many people they can be served in other ways, which will free up roadway capacity for those who have to drive.

      1. Clark

        Exactly! It only needs to work for a fraction of a percent of the billions of trips made in the corridor each year for the trains to be jam packed, even less to meet expectations.

        1. Petr

          Billions? Even at 1 billion trips per year, that’s 2.7 million per day, or roughly half the state population. You’re a couple orders of magnitude off.

          1. Clark

            You know, it does seem quite high, but that is the number MNDOT cites.

            https://www.dot.state.mn.us/nlx/about.html

            I’m looking for the original feasibility study that would probably have a citation for that number. The number might include travelers passing through the twin cities to get to Duluth/superior and beyond, so it’s not necessarily just MN residents, it would also include tourists and long distance commuters could add a lot of trips.

            It still does seem high intuitively, but even if the real number is 1/100th of that, the train would only have to capture 2% of trips? Not unreasonable at all

            1. Clark

              Oh I should also note the number probably includes trips between intermediate stations as well (only 25% of the trips would ride all the way from twin ports to the twin cities per the feasibility study, many would be to and/or from intermediate stations in Cambridge and Hinckley)

            2. Petr

              Because I have nothing better to do, I actually did find the original source of this claim. On page 105 of this document

              http://www.dot.state.mn.us/nlx/documents/ea/appendices/NLX_EA_Appendix_C_Technical_Docs_in_Support_of_Service_Plan_April2017.pdf

              it reads, “Based on calibrated AirSage data, the 2020 ‘gross’ travel demand was estimated to be 3.57 billion
              trips, representing all travel within the study area.”

              On page 99, we can find the study area defined as “45 counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin,
              representing an area of 50-100 miles around the proposed train service”.

              So in other words, in a 50+ mile band stretching across 45 of the state’s 87 counties, there are 3.57 billion trips taken annually. Presumably that is mostly local travel — to the grocery store, doctor, next town over, etc.

              That is very different from trips departing the Cities and ending in Duluth/Superior (or vice versa). I won’t speculate whether the project website is written to be intentionally misleading, but it is clear that the vast majority of these 3+ billion trips would not be replaced by NLX. I support the NLX project, but MnDOT should really make this more clear.

            3. Julie

              If there is a huge demand for this type of service, don’t you think the bus lines would be swamped. But no they run half empty, and are spending most of their routing to avoid bankruptcy

    2. Aaron Peters

      I would very much like a train service, but what we have from Target Field to Big Lake is not very easy to use. So if this is what is planned for Duluth, I would rather not.

      Ideally, several trips each way per day, or like I experienced in Australia. They had two sets of tracks and multiple cars. Each track has cars only going one way. Then certain stops had a car stopping every 30 minutes, while others had a car stopping on the hour. Their cars were also automated, and had cameras and WiFi.

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  8. James Patrick Buchanan

    As I wrote in an earlier post “Local View: Arguments against proposed NLX train are ‘insincere’”, “Modern passenger trains are no more obsolete than any other type of public transportation.” In fact, Amtrak’s current small network, that’s outside of Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor, has planned a much needed expansion in the next fifteen years. More lines will be added, while current lines will get more trains each day. Please read “Amtrak Connects US” vision statement for more information.

    https://www.amtrakconnectsus.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Amtrak-Connects-US-Vision-with-Map-Final.pdf

    Summary statement: “With a growing and diverse population, a global climate crisis and longer traffic jams, America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable, and equitable train service. Amtrak has the vision and expertise to deliver it.”

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