The Northstar Commuter Rail train rumbled to a stop at Target Field station Friday, right on time at 7:40 a.m., releasing a flurry of commuters into the city.
It wasn't a seamless ride for everyone. Passengers traveling from St. Cloud either drove or took a bus to the line's final station — which is 27 miles away in the much-smaller community of Big Lake, northwest of the Twin Cities.
Nearly a decade after Northstar began service, the 40-mile line still stops short of its originally planned route between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Even critics of transit believe it would be a good idea to connect the two cities once and for all. But there's vast disagreement over the cost and logistical challenges of extending the line.
Seth Dutcher, a software engineer from Becker who commutes on Northstar to Minneapolis, supports the idea. "It would mean more opportunities for the area and get people off the roads," he said.
One champion of the extension, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, claims limited service to Minnesota's ninth-largest city could be done with no state funding — actually with very little investment at all. He says paring the number of round-trip departures could pave the way for adding two weekday trips between Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
"The idea is that it would be an equal trade-off," Knoblach explained.
As in years past, he's introduced a bill at the Legislature calling for Northstar to be linked to St. Cloud. The track and rail equipment is already in place, Knoblach said, and trains could use the existing Amtrak station in St. Cloud.
But because BNSF Railway owns the track and operates Northstar, the measure calls for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to begin negotiations with the Texas-based rail giant regarding an extension.
"I've talked to the railroad, and they're neither opposing or supporting the bill," Knoblach said. "What's important is that they're not opposing it."
But others in transportation circles, while supportive of extending service to St. Cloud, have a few pointed concerns.
"The idea that it could be done for free is ludicrous," MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. "The idea that it should be explored has merit. Even the exploration of it will take significant staff time and perhaps outside consulting work to really put this larger picture in focus."
Questions about cost
Gov. Mark Dayton supports extending Northstar service to St. Cloud and has included $850,000 in his supplemental budget to pay for a study probing the idea. That proposal is supported by Alene Tchourumoff, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, which operates the Twin Cities' transit system. But Knoblach said the extension has been studied too much already.
An estimate prepared during last year's legislative session claimed the extension would cost $37.4 million. That includes $10 million for the St. Cloud Amtrak station, which Zelle said requires significant "structural improvements" to make it compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. "It would be illegal to operate there under current conditions," he said.
The estimate also sets aside $12.5 million for commuter rail vehicles, an expense Knoblach said isn't needed. And as far as the Amtrak station in St. Cloud is concerned, the city or Stearns County could help out financially, he said.
But either way, the state would not be required to pony up any money — an unlikely scenario in a Legislature controlled by Republicans who are generally loath to contribute to rail transit. "That's been the key to moving it along," Knoblach said. (A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jerry Relph, a Republican lawmaker from St. Cloud.)
The true wild card is where BNSF lands on the proposal.
"We would evaluate the proposal for passenger service on our property as we would every other, using our long-standing passenger principles," said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth in a statement. "That includes evaluating safety and any impact on our capacity to serve our current and future freight customers."
Zelle says BNSF is "very protective" of its business: "Although they have been open to working with the state, and they've shown that they're willing to accommodate passenger service, it would not be an easy conversation and it would not be for free."
It's also unclear how an extension to St. Cloud would affect Northstar's ridership, which was 793,796 last year — about 2,819 passengers on an average weekday.
Metro Transit says Northstar was the star performer in its transit portfolio last year, with a nearly 12 percent jump in ridership. But the rail line is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Its "farebox recovery" — industry-speak for the portion of operating expenses covered by fares — is 16.7 percent, and the subsidy per passenger is $15.76, according to the most recent figures available from Metro Transit.
Pastor James Alberts, president of the faith-based community group Isaiah, whose church is in St. Cloud, notes college students and others in central Minnesota would benefit immeasurably with a transit connection to the Twin Cities.
"It has and will be a boon to us, if we can get it going," he said. "It's a travesty of faith to say we're not worth the expense."