This article appeared originally on February 15, 2023 in the Duluth News-Tribune. It appears here in an expanded form.
Transportation needs to be multimodal. People want choices. They drive, bike, walk and ride trains and planes. Planning for the future of transportation needs to incorporate all the options available. If you are taking the train you want to be able to access that travel option by using all other available travel options. Build a parking lot, bike and walking trail, transit station and all available transportation choices as close together as possible.Ken Buehler, Chair of Technical Advisory Committee, Northern Lights Express Alliance
Imagine a network of paved walking and bicycling paths to encourage people to bike and walk to Northern Lights Express (NLX) stations. This would be a rail-and-trail project constructed in the same corridor. Existing paved paths could be used with new paths built alongside the NLX-rented and Burlington Northern- and Santa Fe Railway-owned tracks. Imagine how useful it would be for residents of Coon Rapids, Cambridge, and Hinckley in Minnesota, as well as Superior, Wisconsin, to have paved trails allowing people to walk or bike to and from their towns’ stations.
For train riders living close to NLX stations, walking or bicycling would be a green alternative to driving. After all, we are building NLX in part to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. NLX passengers walking and bicycling to the stations would be cutting emissions even more. Because of more intense droughts and storms brought on by climate change, such as the one that recently collapsed the roof of the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, we must all do our part to reach our carbon reduction targets described in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.
There are already such walking and biking paths at Target Field Station in Minneapolis and at the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth. These paved paths bring transit passengers to and from stations by bicycling and walking for the last mile to their workplaces and homes.
An existing example of a rail line with bicycle and pedestrian pathways is Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) in Sonoma and Marin counties in California. This rail-with-trail project, which, when completed, will be 70 miles long, allows local residents to walk or bike to stations and nearby bus stops. There will be paved pathways the entire length of the 70-mile SMART railroad.
In addition to providing rail connections, local residents and tourists find these trails—which are, in effect, linear parks—safe places to get exercise, travel to local businesses, and visit friends without using their motor vehicle. Moreover, the value of homes and businesses near this transport corridor has increased over time—a well-documented phenomenon that demonstrates the value residents place on having nearby green space. These paths also increase pedestrian and bicycle access to undeveloped lands. Thus, if the SMART rail-with-trail project returns more benefits to the environment and nearby communities than the cost of construction, then such trails should bring many of these same benefits to those who live and work in the Interstate 35 corridor, where NLX is planned.
Now is the time for you to contact your Minnesota legislators. Please ask them to fully fund NLX and paved trails to NLX stations. Funding these multimodal projects is the best investment we citizens can make to building sustainable transport alternatives to driving. NLX and these trails will also improve mobility to connect people to housing, jobs, health care and recreation. These projects will reduce rural isolation and motor vehicle reliance. That will give us many direct and indirect benefits that building more highway lane-miles cannot.