Northstar commuter line draws dividing line between counties

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2011 - 11:40 PM

New leaders in Anoka County spark a dispute with Sherburne.

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Commuters boarded the Northstar Commuter Rail at Target Field

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The Northstar commuter rail line connects communities from Big Lake to Minneapolis. But it also has driven a wedge between Anoka and Sherburne counties.

Sherburne and Stearns County officials fear that a proposed rail station being pushed for Ramsey has taken the focus away from extending the line to St. Cloud. Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look's suggestion that the Anoka railroad authority eliminate "unnecessary planning and spending" has added to the tension.

"Commissioner Look does a good job reminding us of how insignificant we are whenever he gets a chance," Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said Friday.

"Anoka County is creating issues for us. I know there's been a change in leadership there, but they're being disingenuous if they're pushing for a Ramsey station and shutting out everything else."

Last fall, three new commissioners were elected to the Anoka County Board. One of them was Look, who replaced longtime Commissioner Dan Erhart as chairman of the county rail authority.

The proposed $13.2 million Ramsey station, expected to open late next year, has been criticized by Sherburne and Stearns County officials who say the additional stop will add minutes to ride times but won't draw additional commuting riders.

Look, a former Ramsey City Council member, disagrees, saying that the station will draw from the city's bus ridership, not from neighboring Northstar stations in Elk River and Anoka. He bristles at the thought of Sherburne County officials who have tried to "torpedo the Ramsey station."

Look's frustration boiled over in a series of e-mails he sent to Luci Botzek, Sherburne County's assistant administrator, and to Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.

'Destructive influence'

While most of the $317 million Northstar line was federally funded, Look reminded Botzek in an Aug. 22 e-mail that Anoka County is the line's majority local regional shareholder and wrote that "your influence is negligible and destructive to the continuance of this relationship."

An Aug. 23 e-mail from Look to Lenzmeier mocked the possibility of a station in Becker rather than Ramsey. Wrote Look: "What is their story ... ride the train to Becker Furniture World, load up a bedroom set and ride it back?"

Schmiesing calls Look's e-mails to Botzek "wicked" and says Anoka County's obsession with Ramsey ignores statistics that show the two Sherburne County stations -- Big Lake and Elk River -- provide more than half of the line's ridership.

The Big Lake station registered 23,524 rides (out and back) in August, followed by Elk River with 20,288. Total Northstar rides: 78,898.

"Anoka County hasn't done the proper research, but with Anoka County, everything is political," Schmiesing said.

Sherburne County doesn't belong to the Met Council or the seven-county metro area, he said, "so it's hard to get people to listen to us. But all Anoka County is doing is scrambling to fix the many mistakes Ramsey has made with a major land project that's cost them millions of dollars and has been a disaster."

Look said he has done nothing intentionally to strain the relationship between the counties. But he questions the wisdom of extending the Northstar line to St. Cloud: Anoka County would have to help fund the project even though there would be no additional track there.

Lenzmeier plans to meet with Look on Oct. 6 to talk about marketing.

"Relationships are tough," Lenzmeier said. "Clearly Anoka County's new board isn't happy they inherited Northstar. But they did. And there's a significant debt of service that you're not going to walk away from."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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