Bridge collapse lends new urgency to Northstar line

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2007 - 5:21 PM

A plan to open the Northstar commuter rail line a year early could help alleviate traffic congestion. The line will connect the northern suburbs to Minneapolis.

Officials are working on plans to open the Northstar Commuter rail line from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis a year or more early -- perhaps as soon as four months from now, on a limited basis -- to help alleviate traffic congestion caused by the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

"If we're interested in moving people, Northstar is just a natural," Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar Corridor Rail Development Authority, said Friday.

Yantos on Thursday told the Fridley Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) that the 40-mile line could be completed in October 2008, a year before the November 2009 expected opening.

He also said the authority is looking at a limited temporary program in which service could start in four months but would not link up with the Hiawatha light rail line downtown.

Yantos said he has spoken with Sen. Norm Coleman and his staff about how the Northstar line can help ease traffic congestion after the bridge collapse.

"Where possible, rail is an answer. In this case only because tracks are in place and built today," Yantos said. "It's just a matter of pulling pieces together."

Fridley still unsure on tunnel

Yantos was at the Fridley meeting to talk about the city being asked to pay about $1.5 million for a tunnel at the site of a proposed Fridley station on the Northstar line. Burlington Northern wants to build the tunnel in the first round of construction and has imposed a deadline of Nov. 1 on the city to decide if it will pay for the tunnel.

The station was left out of the proposed federal funding package; local officials hope to change that, but there's no guarantee that Fridley will get a station even if it does spend the money on the tunnel.

City staff and Yantos asked HRA officials to hold off on a decision of whether to fund the tunnel at least until September. Yantos is expecting to hear a more firm price on the tunnel from Burlington Northern in the next month.

Paul Bolin, a Fridley city employee who prepares background information for the HRA, said he has heard that there might be more support for Fridley's Northstar stop in light of the bridge disaster but he wasn't ready to make a recommendation to the HRA because "nobody will give us any guarantees" about the stop's future.

While there is talk of a replacement I-35W bridge being built by the end of 2008, Yantos said, even without the increased traffic from the bridge collapse, there is a "tremendous need" for the Northstar line.

He said the authority is looking at three scenarios to speed up the opening of the line, all of which rely on support from federal and state agencies.

"One is with all the appropriate cooperation and if we can get the full [federal funding] ... immediately approved, we think we could move up the project a year in advance," he said in an interview Friday.

The Northstar will run commuter trains along a 40-mile stretch of existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Federal funding has not been approved, but Sens. Coleman and Amy Klobuchar have asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to speed up approval of almost $160 million in federal funding for the line in the wake of the bridge disaster.

Fridley HRA member Steve Billings said during the meeting that it shouldn't have taken the bridge collapse to get officials talking about how to relieve traffic congestion.

"It's unfortunate that a tragedy had to happen ... in order to get people to stand up and move forward on this," he said.

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