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Viewpoint: Expanded passenger rail is good for river route

Janice Rettman is chair of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission

The beautiful Mississippi River valley in southeastern Minnesota is a bustling transportation corridor.

Thousands of cars and trucks, dozens of trains, and (in summertime) many barges are moving people and goods daily through the region. The Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission is working on ways to improve the safety and efficiency of the travel experience for those coming to the River Route as well as for those traveling through it. And the first step — adding a second daily round-trip passenger train — could be up and running in just a few years, with your help.

The MNHSR Commission, a group representing 17 governments along the River Route, is advocating for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago second train. The commission is seeking funding for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Passenger Rail Office so planning for the second train can be completed this year.

We know there's local support for improved passenger rail service. Each of the 17 governments in the commission has passed a resolution in support. Business leaders and residents have told us they want expanded transportation alternatives. They are excited about the opportunity to quickly add service at a relatively low cost.

As you know, there are many issues before the Minnesota Legislature. We ask legislators to give Minnesota House File 523 and Senate File 713 strong consideration. The bills would appropriate funds for the Minnesota Department of Transportation to complete work statewide on the intercity passenger rail system. This includes the second train and projects connecting Minnesota's important regional hubs including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, St. Cloud, Willmar, Mankato and Albert Lea.

We believe expanded passenger rail is good for the Mississippi River Route, and all of Minnesota. Here are three beneficiaries:

• Minnesota's economy. Since nearly all passenger trains run on freight rail tracks, passenger rail investments in tracks and stations help the movement of freight.

• Our environment. Freight railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks and produce 75 percent less greenhouse gases. Passenger trains can carry hundreds of passengers, reducing automobile emissions.

• People. Passenger rail investments create temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs as businesses expand and tourism increases. And track improvements boost safety on the tracks and at roadway crossings.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, nearly 10 million trips are taken annually between the Twin Cities and Chicago. More people are choosing to use passenger rail. Now that the oil boom has slowed in North Dakota, Amtrak's Empire Builder has improved on-time performance and is attracting more riders (a 3.7 percent increase in 2016).

A 2015 TCMC Second Train feasibility study showed ridership could more than double by adding a second daily round-trip that complements the Empire Builder schedule. Second train ridership is estimated at 155,000 trips annually, in addition to the annual Empire Builder ridership of approximately 104,000.

Support for expanded passenger rail using existing tracks is real, the cost of upgrading existing tracks is less than building new lines, and investments benefit freight and passenger rail. Now is the time to let your legislators know how you feel about expanding passenger rail in Minnesota and in the Mississippi River Route.

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