Legislature dedicates $195 million for Northern Lights Express (NLX). Also, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) will receive more than $20 million for two projects; the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Houston, Tex., Metro) partners with on-demand childcare platform TOOTRis; and the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) Transportation Tomorrow Survey (TTS) resumes data collection activities.
Northern Lights Express
Passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth cleared a major hurdle when Legislature, in the last days of the legislative session in May, dedicated $195 million for the 152-mile route, according to a Star Tribune report.
This new follows an April Duluth News Tribune report in which advocates of NLX stated that the rail project appears “closer than ever to reality” this year, with both the House and Senate versions of a transportation budget, including funding for the service.
According to the Star Tribune report, the NLX, which is expected to make four daily trips, “hinges on securing nearly $800 million in federal funding and the cooperation of railroad owner BNSF Railway and likely Amtrak.” But, supporters say this is the closest they’ve been to success, following two decades of studies and lobbying, in St. Paul and Washington, D.C., “until there was the necessary mix of supportive politicians and available money.”
Today, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) project, “praised for its ability to create jobs and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, is considered ‘shovel ready’ proponents say, with an already completed and approved environmental review by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA),” according to the Star Tribune report.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, according to the report, said some federal funding has already gone to the NLX project for planning, and she continues to push for more money.
According to the report, MnDOT is pursuing matching funds from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill, which allocated billions for intercity passenger rail. In all, the project is expected to cost $974 million. Of that, more than $592 million is meant for design and construction, including stations at each of the stops and track and crossing upgrades. The rest is for locomotives, passenger cars and other equipment.
Trains—which will travel at up to 90 mph—would depart Target Field Station in Minneapolis and stop in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior, Wis., before their final stop at the downtown Duluth Depot. A one-way ticket is expected to cost between $30 and $35, with a trip time of 2.5 hours.
According to the Star Tribune report, MnDOT projects up to 700,000 riders in its first year, with one million after two decades. Those estimates are based on a “decade-old GPS study that tracked travelers moving between intended stops.”
“When the passenger service could begin operating is unknown, and it depends on federal funding. If it’s awarded, it will take a couple of years for planning and about three years to build, said Greg Mathis of MnDOT. Plans include addressing known slow points along the route, he said, and those that need upgrades—such as the Grassy Point Bridge crossing the St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior,” according to the report.
According to the Star Tribune, potential operator Amtrak “appears to be on board, but BNSF owns the connecting railroad, and a spokeswoman said the company hadn’t had substantive conversations about the project with MnDOT since 2016.”
BNSF’s freight rail network doesn’t use a fixed schedule, Lydia Underdahl said, and the use of its tracks for passengers needs to be analyzed for safety and impacts to freight rail capacity.
“BNSF does not yet know what would be required to host NLX on our freight railroad,” Underdahl said, noting the company was resuming conversations with MnDOT soon.
“Amtrak doesn’t have an official agreement with MnDOT, but the operator is excited about the project,” said its Midwestern spokesperson, Marc Magliari.
With state money also designated for a second daily Amtrak train to Chicago, “the Twin Cities are about to be a rail hub again,” he said.
Two projects proposed by the VRE will receive more than $20 million through the 1-395/95 Commuter Choice program following votes Thursday by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, the commuter rail service announced June 2. The funds will support reinstatement of the Amtrak Step-Up program and construction of a new VRE station in Crystal City.
“This funding will provide both short- and long-term benefits to VRE and its passengers,” said Operations Board Chair James Walkinshaw. “Our riders have been clamoring for a return of the Amtrak Step-Up program, which was suspended during the pandemic. Reinstatement and the possible expansion of this program will offer alternative travel options to many VRE passengers.”
According to VRE, the Amtrak Step-Up program allows the commuter rail service multi-ride ticketholders to ride select Amtrak trains for an additional charge. The nearly $1.5 million in 1-395/95 Commuter Choice funding will not only provide for the program’s reinstatement, VRE says, but subsidize the cost of Step-Up tickets on VRE’s Fredericksburg Line, which runs parallel to I-95 and I-395. VRE is working with Amtrak to finalize trains to include in the program and a mechanism to allow VRE passengers to ride, as Amtrak began requiring reservations on all trains when the pandemic hit.
The award of $18.8 million for a new Crystal City station will complete the funding commitments for this highly anticipated project and leverage over $50 million in federal, state and regional funds, VRE stated in a release.
“This new station will help anchor redevelopment in the area and support the state’s Transforming Rail in Virginia program,” said Walkinshaw. “Station access and service reliability will also be improved as a result of this project.”
According to VRE, the station’s design calls for a longer platform than exists at the current Crystal City station so that passengers can board or alight from any railcar of an eight-car train. The current platform only accommodates four railcars. The new “island platform” will allow two full-length trains to simultaneously service the platform. The design also accommodates a future pedestrian/bicycle connection between the station and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
VRE runs 32 trains each weekday, generally north in the morning and south in the afternoon and evening. It is the nation’s 13th largest commuter rail service, connecting Central and Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia.
Metro on June 1 announced a new partnership with TOOTRis, the nation’s largest childcare platform, allowing Metro employees access to affordable and high-quality childcare services, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.
Under the partnership, which is in direct response to data recently released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reporting that 96% of transit agencies are experiencing a workforce shortage, 84% of which said the shortage affects their ability to provide service, Metro employees will have “premium access and assistance on the TOOTRis platform, enabling them to quickly search, vet, and enroll their children with providers in real-time,” according to the AP report.
According to the AP report, with nearly 200,000 state-licensed childcare programs on its nationwide network, TOOTRiS provides parents “a wide range of care options including full-time, part-time care, drop-in care, after-school programs, summer camps, and care during non-standard hours—an important option for drivers with night and weekend shifts.”
According to the AP report, Metro employees will also receive $200 per month in financial assistance toward childcare expenses. The partnership and financial support are part of Metro’s ongoing efforts to support its employees and promote work-life balance.
“When you provide transportation to over 2,000,000 people every year, you realize how important access to reliable transit—and childcare—is to quality of life,” said Alessandra Lezama, TOOTRiS CEO and select member of the ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood. “Metro is an excellent example of how employers can thrive by providing a turn-key childcare benefit solution that allows them to attract and retain employees.”
TTC announced June 2 that its Transportation Tomorrow Survey (TTS) has resumed data collection activities to “help the Province of Ontario, transit agencies, and municipalities understand the transportation needs of residents from the Greater Horseshoe and surrounding areas.”
To date, more than 100,000 surveys have been collected during the first phase of the TTS that began in September 2022, TTC said. In efforts to reach a total of 170,000 completed surveys by June 2023, the participation of residents in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and surrounding areas is “more crucial than ever,” the Commission added.
Randomly selected households will be contacted to take part in the spring round of data collection.
According to TTC, preliminary results from the TTS data have provided “invaluable insights” for transportation planning, such as the number of residents across the Greater Golden Horseshoe area (GGHA) that continue to work from home following the pandemic restrictions.
According to the latest TTS data from the fall 2022, 17% of residents across the GGHA work exclusively from home. This represents almost a 50% decrease from Census 2021 data, where 32% of residents across the GGHA worked from home. While work from home has reduced drastically since the time the 2021 Census was conducted, it is still more than double the amount reported in the 2016 Census and 2016 TTS when only 7% of GGHA residents were working from home.
Data from TTS 2022 also shows that while work from home has decreased for both men and women, women are more likely than men to work from home, with 18% of women working from home versus 16% of men.
In addition to important information such as the prevalence of working from home, the TTS collects information about the types of trips made by each person in the household to provide a snapshot of where, how, and why trips occurred. This, TTC says, allows transportation planners to assess the level of transportation demand at the regional as well as municipal level. However, TTC adds, “it is important to hear from residents across all areas being surveyed, whether residents made trips on that given day or not.” Information collected by the TTS will help improve local transportation and help answer key questions such as how to reduce gridlock on our roads, and how to plan future infrastructure needs that can accommodate all modes of transportation.
While the survey is voluntary, success of the TTS data collection efforts is ultimately dependent on the participation of the residents in these regions to provide responses that reflect the transportation needs specific to each area, according to TTC.
A Canadian-based research firm, R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., is conducting the survey on behalf of the Ministry of Transportation, municipal partners and transit planning agencies. The survey responses will remain anonymous and will be combined with other responses to “identify travel patterns and answer important questions related to transportation planning in your area,” according to TTC.
Households will receive an official invitation letter informing them they have been selected to take part in the survey. The invitation letter will provide households with a secure access code and more information about the survey. Households without an access code can also generate one by clicking the “Generate” button on the project website—at TTS2023.ca, or by calling the survey hotline at 1-877-216-7786.