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Road, rail advocates assess Trump transportation budget

The Trump administration's federal budget proposal for 2018 isn't a week old, but already state and local transportation officials are adjusting to President Donald Trump's goal of reducing the federal government's role in funding infrastructure.

While hopeful still of federal dollars, organizers behind the proposed Northern Lights Express high-speed rail project between Duluth and the Twin Cities are starting to consider piecemeal options aimed at bringing the project to fruition over a longer period of time.

"If we can't do the whole thing," said Frank Loetterle, project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's passenger rail office in St. Paul, "we can still do parts of it."

Meanwhile, MnDOT road and bridge officials are familiarizing themselves with a new way of doing business in the form of public-private partnerships, known as P3s.

"MnDOT has been trying to learn about P3 projects so that we can determine if any of our needs would be served well by pursuing P3 funds," said Duane Hill, district engineer based in MnDOT's Duluth office.

The Trump budget proposal is unlikely to make it through Congress intact. Locally, Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, called it a "slash-and-burn budget" that "eviscerates essential transportation and infrastructure." But, if nothing else, the president's proposal could be seen as a bellwether for change in the way infrastructure projects are funded in the coming years.

Increased federal funding "is not the solution" to the president's campaign promise of a $1 trillion renewal of the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure, the Trump budget proposal said. It called on states, tribes and municipalities to become more self-reliant.

"There has been a lot of discussion about additional infrastructure funding, but no details," said Hill, who confirmed that federal funding for scores of local road and bridge projects is secure through 2020 under the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act passed by Congress in 2015.

The city of Duluth and MnDOT are also currently awaiting word on a $45 million federal grant application that would partially fund the Twin Ports Interchange Project, a $245 million plan to replace the Interstate 35 "can of worms" interchange in Duluth.

The prospect for long-term projects is much hazier.

Hill told the News Tribune in April that his office was beginning to plan for a replacement of the Blatnik Bridge that would begin construction as soon as 2028.

Under a Trump budget, federal dollars would be targeted to "transformative projects" that are high priorities for regions and the nation. The Blatnik Bridge could seemingly make that case for its service to two states and an international port. But it's too soon to understand whether the Blatnik would be appropriate, according to Hill, "mostly because until (a budget) is enacted, it is just a discussion."

As for the proposed $500 million to $600 million passenger rail between Duluth and the Twin Cities, Trump's budget proposal was clear: There is no federal money for it. Only transit projects with existing grant agreements in place will receive funding.

The Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail Alliance said in March that its project would be shovel-ready by June, when environmental assessments are expected to be complete.

The NLX Alliance continues to bank on its preparedness as one of the project's biggest assets.

"You can't spend a trillion dollars in this country on shovel-ready projects without touching NLX," said Ken Buehler, Duluth Depot executive director and chairman of the NLX's technical advisory committee.

Still, uncertainty posed by the Trump budget is forcing the group to consider options beyond the 80 percent federal funding built into the NLX proposal.

Loetterle explained it could work out that NLX gets funded through a series of smaller grants. Money would be used over time to make piecemeal upgrades to nearly 120 crossings and four or five sidings along the 152 miles of existing BNSF Railway track.

"If we improve grade crossings and warning devices, we're improving safety," he said. "Even if the train doesn't come to pass, the money would not be wasted."

Long doubted by some, the current NLX project is already more than 10 years in the making. It's been carried forward by passionate advocates found within communities along the proposed route. Some of those advocates lunched together last week, Loetterle said, and their approach was to let uncertainties shake out over the next couple of years.

"The thing is not to give up," Loetterle said. "We'll just keep whittling away. Our approach is to get it into position and keep our eyes wide open to where we can take little chunks out of it and do what we can a little at a time."