See more of the story

DULUTH — Passenger train service, a food hall, a ski chalet and a hockey arena are all northeastern Minnesota projects set to get a major financial boost from state budget bills passed this Legislative session.

A jubilant group of elected officials and community leaders gathered Tuesday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center [DECC] to thank local lawmakers and celebrate what Mayor Emily Larson said was "by far the most important and substantial legislative session that has ever happened for the city of Duluth."

Several lauded the passage of $195 million for the 152-mile Northern Lights Express passenger rail connecting Duluth to Minneapolis. The complete project is estimated to cost up to $974 million, according to Ken Buehler of the Northern Lights Express Alliance. The project is eligible for a federal matching grant now that state funds are forthcoming. Train service would include four daily round trips stopping in four cities along the way, with speeds up to 90 miles per hour.

"It will be transformational," said Buehler, who has worked for more than two decades to return passenger rail service to Duluth. "This is going to affect so many people."

Among the budget bills passed by Minnesota lawmakers was a long-sought $2.6 billion infrastructure package, with $1.5 billion of borrowing and nearly $1.1 billion in cash. DFL Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign the bill today.

Duluth entities set to receive infrastructure package money include:

The cash infusion to Spirit Mountain will go toward a new chalet and chairlift to help the 50-year-old recreation area draw visitors for "another 50 years," its interim director Ann Glumac said.

Another $40 million will go elsewhere in the region, including nearly $7.8 million toward a Hermantown ice arena expansion; About $2 million each for water and sewer improvements in Babbitt and Rice Lake; $4 million to extend the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along the North Shore; $11 million for construction of a visitor center and other improvements at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park and $3.5 million for a new marina in Ranier, Minn.

"I just have to say this is my first year, and boy, did we make history," said Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, speaking particularly to both the tax and bonding bills. "We've targeted relief where it is needed most."

In a statement, Rep. Roger Skraba, R-Ely, called the bonding proposal "a good bill for the Northland."

"Not only will it strengthen our communities and help fund important projects, it will also provide good-paying jobs for men and women in labor that work on these job sites," he said. "This is a win-win for all of us."

Both Duluth and St. Louis County will also see $4 million-plus increases to local and county aid.

St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle deemed the results of the session the "Minnesota Miracle 2.0."

As a Duluth City Councilor 14 years ago, he said, the council was forced to make "really tough cuts" amid the recession.

"We have not recouped those losses up until this year," Boyle said.

Duluth's request to extend its half-percent restaurant, bar and lodging sales tax, meant to improve city parks, was also approved by lawmakers.

Not all of the city's bonding requests made the cut, including those for the Aerial Lift Bridge, Lot D development and the Duluth International Airport.