The commuter line's local costs are paid by nearby counties.
More than half of the Northstar commuter-rail stations are in Anoka County, but the county no longer wants to pay half of the line's local costs.
For more than a decade, the counties supporting the 41-mile line that runs from Big Lake to the Target Field station in Minneapolis have used a funding formula based on population within 5 miles of the line. That formula is the basis on which the participating counties "built the future of the line," Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said Friday. Anoka County pays 53.9 percent of the local counties' obligation.
But Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look says Sherburne County, which has stations in Big Lake and Elk River, should pay more than its current 13.2 percent share because those stations generate far more rides than the Anoka County stations in Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley. A fourth Anoka County station, in Ramsey, will open later this year. Meanwhile, officials in Sherburne and Stearns counties are left wondering if and when the line will be extended to St. Cloud, as once planned.
"The accusation we're getting [from other counties] at this point is, 'We were there for you and now you're not there for us,'" said Look, who suggested a revision in the allocations counties pay.
"Well, let's set the record straight," Look said. "Stearns County was never there. If they want to be there, they have to pay back-pay."
Stearns County has no Northstar stations but feeds the trains hundreds of riders each week through its Northstar Link commuter bus line from St. Cloud to Big Lake. For years, Stearns County was not obligated to pay the locals' share of Northstar's costs. Stearns now pays 18.8 percent -- with the hope of getting a station within five to 10 years.
As for Sherburne County, Look said, "I think the people who benefit from the train should pay for the train. Big Lake's numbers are excellent and Fridley's numbers are dismal. But why would someone from Fridley jump on a train when Minneapolis is five minutes away by car?"
Look spoke publicly about revising the counties' financial obligations at a recent Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) meeting. Look, who chairs the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, has been a county commissioner for slightly more than a year. He wasn't part of the group that devised a funding formula for a commuter line that was originally supposed to go as far west as Rice, with a key station in St. Cloud.
But when a $157 million federal grant in 2007 made it possible for the $317 million line to finally begin running trains in November of 2009, everything stopped in Big Lake. Politics and a struggling economy delayed the line for several years and relegated dreams of a station in St. Cloud to Phase II status.
Counties' share is 17 percent
The formula for Northstar called for 50 percent federal funding, 33 percent from the state and 17 percent local. The local funding formula was based on a county's population within 5 miles of the proposed tracks, said Peggy Aho, clerk for the committee that devised the formula. Anoka County had 232,521 residents in the formula's area when allocations were last revised. Hennepin County (14.1 percent) had 60,830 and Sherburne County had 56,851. Stearns County (18.8 percent) had 80,971 residents living within 5 miles of a route that may never be built.
The relationship between Look and some Sherburne County officials has been strained for months. Look, a former Ramsey City Council member, campaigned heavily for a station in Ramsey that opponents said was unnecessary.
Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing was among those who questioned the value of a $13.2 million station in Ramsey, saying the station would likely rely on passengers who previously boarded the train in Anoka or Elk River. Schmiesing said the focus should have been on getting the train to St. Cloud.
Ramsey was awarded a station in November. Look says the cost of the station will be $10 million, and not the $13.2 million originally approved.
"If the formula changes, we probably eliminate some stations in Sherburne County," Schmiesing said. "The model for this formula was tested. It was fair the way we did it.
"This feels like retaliation. We were honest, taking a position against the Ramsey station and sticking with it, and now we're being punished for it."
Schmiesing noted that the point of the commuter train was to get motorists off the road, specifically Hwy. 10, which runs parallel to the tracks in Sherburne and Anoka counties. With Northstar relieving congestion in the cities of Anoka and Coon Rapids, Anoka County benefits, Schmiesing said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein said Anoka County should use Northstar to the county's benefit.
"Anoka County needs to do more economic development so they can turn their county into a destination where people want to go," Stenglein said. "That's the whole idea of this train. Instead of crying about it, build aroud it."
During the first 11 months of last year, the Big Lake station had 97,699 Northstar passengers, followed by Elk River with 92,483, Anoka with 62,297, Coon Rapids with 62,176 and Fridley with 26,565.
According to Northstar figures, Anoka County is responsible for nearly $27.5 million of the $51 million contributed by local counties. The county "buy-in contributions" are: Anoka $27,489,000; Stearns $9,588,000; Hennepin $7,191,000, and Sherburne $6,732,000.
For a Phase II, which would take Northstar to St. Cloud, the local contribution is estimated at $25.5 million -- or half of Phase I. Stearns County would be the largest contributor to Phase II, paying $14,382,000.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419