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Hinckley casino plays big in projections about rail line

On paper, Hinckley is more popular than the Twin Ports.

More Northern Lights Express passengers would use a station built near Grand Casino in Hinckley than both a Superior depot and Duluth terminal, if annual ridership figures from a feasibility study for the proposed rail line play out as projected.

About 1.3 million riders are forecast to travel annually on one of eight daily runs along a portion of the 150-mile corridor from Minneapolis to Duluth. Only 274,000 riders, or 21 percent, will board or depart in both Duluth and Superior, compared to 350,000 riders, or 27 percent, at the Hinckley station near the casino.

"What people are confused about is that the 1.3 million will not all be coming to Duluth," said Bob Manzoline, the president of the Minneapolis/Duluth-Superior Rail Alliance. "Most of the ridership will occur south of Hinckley."

Eighty percent of riders will come from Hinckley and the three southern stations. Ridership through Minneapolis is estimated at 500,000 per year, with the Suburban North station in Coon Rapids at 125,000 and Cambridge at 75,000.

"A demand forecast for high-speed rail is more of an art form," said Alex Metcalf, the president of Transportation Economics and Management Systems (TEMS), who conducted the feasibility study.

Metcalf said TEMS has come up with a "sophisticated model" that analyzes travel behaviors, time and cost options, and population growth, among other factors. The findings are then compared with actual ridership numbers on existing rail lines.

Metcalf puts TEMS projections within a 20 percent margin of error.

"The Minneapolis-to-Duluth answers compared well with Boston-to-Portland [Maine]," Metcalf said. "They have similar issues. Boston is the big city, quite a bit bigger than Minneapolis, and Portland is the smaller town. We checked it, and it would work."

The Boston-to-Portland line annually carries about 475,000 passengers, but the train travels at about 79 mph on five daily trains, Metcalf said. The Northern Lights Express should receive more riders, he said, because the train will run up to 110 mph on eight daily runs.

Northern Lights Express ridership projections increase with the inclusion of Grand Casino. If a station was located in downtown Hinckley, ridership is projected at 105,000 per year. If the Hinckley station is near the casino, ridership numbers jump to 350,000.

"Potential ridership generation could be the equivalent to that of a city of a million people; however, the lack of a direct rail connection to the casino significantly reduces the forecast," the study said.

The feasibility study said the downtown Hinckley station would hold 12 percent of overall demand, with 60 percent attracted to or generated by Grand Casino. A stop at the casino would push those figures to 26 percent of demand, with 90 percent from the casino.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which owns the Grand Casino, wrote a letter to the alliance in April to show support and offer possible resources in the upcoming environmental and feasibility study into the rail.

"For the overall project, it's important to have the band," Manzoline said. "It will certainly generate more riders, but the difficulty is in the details. With us being a government group and the band being a private entity, we will have to figure out how to do that."