With a major federal grant coming today, it's full speed ahead for the Northstar commuter rail line, which in two years will provide more than 2 million rides annually to downtown Minneapolis from northern metro communities.

This morning, the federal government will formally grant nearly half of the funding for the $320 million, 40-mile line from Minneapolis to Big Lake.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett will visit the Anoka County Government Center, along with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, for a signing ceremony "that means the people of Anoka, Hennepin and Sherburne counties will be riding a train by 2009," Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart said Monday.

Big Lake, Elk River, Coon Rapids, Anoka, downtown Minneapolis and Fridley will benefit from the line. Those commuters could cut drive time in half and save gas and parking money, said Jill Brown, a spokeswoman for the project.

"If you board the train in Coon Rapids, you will be able to get to downtown Minneapolis in 20 minutes," she said. "The ride will cost you about $2.75. Once you're downtown, that same ticket will give you access to Hiawatha light-rail transit, so you can continue on to Mall of America or the airport. Or you can transfer to buses."

The 18-mile trip from Coon Rapids would take 45 minutes by car during rush hour, Brown said.

In fast-growing Big Lake -- where the population has more than tripled since 1992 -- there are mixed feelings about the new line and what it symbolizes, said Mayor Donald Orrock.

"Anybody who has the vision of the city in mind is in favor of it," he said. "It's the old guard that isn't going to use it, has no need for it, doesn't want it, who's against it."

Here, as in many outlying communities, some want to retain a rural setting, Orrock said, but others want to regulate growth and one of its main attributes: transportation.

Planning for the line began a decade ago. After the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, U.S. Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar asked federal officials to speed up a $160 million funding request.

Today's federal grant signing, in which $156.8 million will be pledged, will enable the release of an additional $97.5 million in state bonding money for the project, Erhart said.

The three counties involved must pay Burlington Northern Santa Fe $11 million by Monday for track rights. In all, federal funding for the line will total $161.9 million.

"This is a tremendous day for us; after such long years of hard work and scrutiny, to have half of this paid for with federal funding is just great," said Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar project.

The state will pay $98.6 million, and the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority has pledged $34.8 million. The remaining partners are Sherburne County Regional Rail Authority ($8.2 million), Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority ($8 million), the Metropolitan Council ($5.9 million) and the Minnesota Twins ($2.6 million).

An average of 5,200 commuters are expected to climb aboard each day on the line. That's an annual capacity of more than 2 million rides, Brown said.

The federal funding comes after a mandatory 60-day review of the Northstar proposal by Congress, considered a formality after the funding was approved in October by two federal agencies -- the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Transit Administration.

Once Congress was advised of the mandatory review in October, local officials breathed a collective sigh of relief. The federal funding is expected to be used for building stations and buying coaches, Yantos said.

Today's announcement trumps October's, Erhart said.

"This allows us to move along," he said. "Northstar has never seemed more real."

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