For several years, some lawmakers have tried to correct a miscue that has vexed public transit in the Twin Cities and beyond for a decade — the abrupt halt of the Northstar Commuter Rail line in Big Lake instead of St. Cloud, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the state.
This legislative session, yet another measure has been introduced that begins the work needed to extend the commuter rail service to St. Cloud. At a four-hour hearing in the Stearns County seat Friday, dozens of residents, workers, business people and transit activists implored members of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee to fix what they perceive to be a longstanding snub. Some wore bright red stickers, others hoisted placards that said "We Want the Train!"
Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, has sponsored a bill that would provide $7.3 million to get the project rolling. Of that amount, $850,000 would pay for an analysis to see if an extension is appropriate. The remaining money would fund preliminary work, such as engineering, environmental analysis and land acquisition.
"Getting this train to St. Cloud will change people's lives," Wolgamott said. "I thought the testimony today was extremely powerful."
Cost estimates for extending Northstar to St. Cloud have varied over the years, from as $40 million to $150 million.
Wolgamott said the assessment will help better quantify those costs, and his bill requires the Minnesota Department of Transportation to report initial findings to the committee by October 2020.
Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, R-Sartell, introduced another bill that calls for a feasibility study exploring whether Northstar could be extended beyond St. Cloud to Camp Ripley. O'Driscoll said Friday he wasn't sure whether he supports expanding commuter rail beyond Big Lake. "I'm skeptical without more information," he said.
Although the route was envisioned to link downtown Minneapolis to St. Cloud when Northstar began service in 2009, the $320 million line ran out of federal money and ended in Big Lake instead. Now, transit buses offer limited service between Big Lake, home to about 11,000 people, and St. Cloud.
Ridership on Northstar last year was flat at 787,327, about 2,814 passengers every weekday on average. Fares are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Although Metro Transit did not have updated figures Friday, the subsidy for Northstar was $18.31 per passenger in 2015.
Advocates say an extension would be a critical link for residents to access jobs, health care and schools.
In a recent survey, 70 percent of local businesses surveyed by St. Cloud State University said they expected "neither a net gain nor loss" should the extension be built, according to King Banaian, dean of the School of Public Affairs. Seventeen percent of the firms said they expected a net gain from the expansion, while 7 percent predicted a net loss, he said.
Brendan Klein, a senior at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, launched an impromptu survey among students two days ago asking whether they support the Northstar extension. More than 500 students said they would be interested in using the line, and 200 shared their stories about the lack of connectivity from campus.
"One person said when they go home it's like the movie 'Trains, Planes and Automobiles' where you never know how to get to the next place," Klein said Friday.
Teresa Bohnen, president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that "every employer is feeling the workforce crunch right now. We would love to have another avenue to draw workers to the community."
And Sara Lee Dunlap, an 80-year-old grandmother from Sartell, submitted written testimony stating she doesn't feel comfortable driving to visit her grandchildren and their families in the Twin Cities. "The Northstar would be a blessing for me," she wrote.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he's in favor of the extension. "It is foolish to have a line end where it does with a large population center in St. Cloud well beyond the end of the line," he said.
But he worries about Northstar's service being so heavily subsidized: "Will extending it make it more efficient? I honestly don't know."
Then there's the issue of Northstar sharing track with BNSF Railway freight trains, which have priority because the railroad giant owns the right of way.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in a statement that if there's interest in an expansion, it would require "a specific proposal for us to review. We evaluate passenger projects on our property for a number of factors, including safety and impacts to our current and future ability to serve our freight customers in Minnesota and beyond."