Northstar, Northern Light Express contemplate next stops

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2012 - 9:58 AM

Extending Northstar and creating a rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth could change the landscape of the counties to the north of the Twin Cities.

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A Northstar Commuter Rail Train pulled into the Big Lake station as around 700 people waited in line to board the 11:35pm nonstop to the Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Ridership on the Northstar commuter rail is up. A new train station is scheduled to open in Ramsey this fall. Talks about a passenger-rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth continue, as do discussions of a commuter-rail line from Cambridge to the Target Center station in Minneapolis.

The folks planning Twin Cities transit envision the day when Minnesotans will be able to take trains from St. Cloud to St. Paul, from Coon Rapids to Duluth.

In Hennepin County, officials are hoping to begin work on an Interchange transit hub in Minneapolis, which would ease transit connections for light-rail, commuter train and bus passengers near Target Field. A bundle of other transit undertakings also are in the works or the subject of discussion all around the Twin Cities area.

In the northwest metro, people already are taking the Northstar Link Commuter bus between St. Cloud and Big Lake in record numbers; Big Lake is the northern-most stop along the Northstar rail line, and the bus is the connection to it from the north and west.

Now Stearns County Board Chairman Leigh Lenzmeier sees a way to increase ridership further and ultimately get the line extended to St. Cloud:

He wants transit officials to reach out to Twin Cities community and technical college students who might consider transferring to St. Cloud State University after two years. Twin Cities-area students who prefer living at home and commuting to school could continue to do so by taking the train to Big Lake and catching the bus to St. Cloud.

"We're starting to see more opportunities now," said Lenzmeier, who chairs the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. "We'd like to make the point in the western and northwestern metropolitan area that it's possible to graduate from community and technical colleges in Hennepin and Anoka counties and finish degrees at St. Cloud State while still living at home."

Lenzmeier hopes that students ultimately have the option of taking the Northstar commuter rail all the way from the Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis to St. Cloud. Currently, the line runs only 41 miles, ending at Big Lake, about 30 miles east of St. Cloud.

Extending Northstar could take another five to 10 years, but completing Phase II of the line that opened in November of 2009 could drastically change Anoka, Sherburne and Stearns counties -- the counties northwest of the inner ring of Twin Cities suburbia.

The commuter line attracted slightly fewer than 2,000 rides per day last year. Officials say that 4,500 daily rides are needed before the line can be extended to St. Cloud. A seventh Northstar station is scheduled to open in Ramsey this fall and officials hope that Ramsey bus riders will convert to the train.

At 28 months, Northstar is still in its infancy. The commuter line has been hurt by high unemployment and last year's comparatively moderate gas prices and weather. A healthier job market and rising gas prices could alter Northstar's course.

The line has yet to meet ridership projections, but 2012 is off to a strong start. Ridership in January and February was up 3.3 percent compared to the first two months of 2011.

A recent Met Council/HUD grant of $125,000 is being used for market analysis and development strategy.

Here's a look at some of the other pieces of the Twin Cities transit picture, in the north metro and beyond.

NORTHERN LIGHTS EXPRESS

A passenger-rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth could particularly change the landscape of Isanti and northern Anoka counties, if commuter-rail trains used the line from Cambridge to Minneapolis.

Developers of the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger-rail line that would travel from the Target field station to Duluth received a $5 million Federal Railroad Administration grant last May to help pay for the line's engineering and environmental documentation phase.

The next steps include completing corridor mapping and the service-development plan.

BOTTINEAU TRANSITWAY

The planning process has begun for the Bottineau corridor, with public open houses and an environmental review underway. The main decisions: whether it should be a busway or a light-rail line, and whether it should go to Maple Grove or Brooklyn Park.

Also to be decided is whether the south end of the line would go through Golden Valley or north Minneapolis.

The project has embarked on a long process to compete for federal funding. As a light-rail line, costs could run from $900 million to $1 billion; a busway would cost roughly half that. Officials hope that federal funds will cover half the cost, with the balance coming from the region, county and state.

The project's timeline has it up and running by the end of 2018. But that doesn't take into account the typical hiccups that occur along the way.

INTERCHANGE HUB

Transit advocates in the west metro area consider the $67.7 million multi-plaza and train platform in downtown Minneapolis' North Loop the bow on their transit package. It will be just north of Target Field, where the Northstar line, two light-rail lines, bus routes and a bike trail meet. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin describes it as the west metro's counterpart to the Union Depot hub in downtown St. Paul.

But with perhaps a month to go before the Hennepin County Board needs to pull the trigger on the project, it still has a funding shortfall of $30 million. That gap may soon be narrowed -- for instance, the Senate's bonding bill includes $5 million for the Interchange, and other possible sources are being mined -- but the county may have to agree to backstop funding so that the project can be finished before Central Corridor trains arrive in 2014.

SOUTHWEST LIGHT RAIL

It's been a rocky winter for the Southwest Corridor, the next big-ticket transitway planned for the metro area's light-rail system.

The proposed link to the southwest suburbs is expected to cost $1.25 billion, with the federal government paying for half. Twin Cities counties would pick up 40 percent, and the state would kick in $125 million.

Outside of Gov. Mark Dayton's public works plan, which includes $25 million for engineering work, there hasn't been much enthusiasm at the Capitol to fund the project. The House transportation committee left it off its funding list, and it was nowhere to be found in the Senate's bonding bill last week.

Dayton himself expressed concern when it looked like the Metropolitan Council would award an engineering contract for the line to the San Francisco firm that worked on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007. The council tabled the action.

An environmental impact statement is being done for the Southwest line. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014, with the line opening in 2018.

CEDAR AVENUE BUSWAY

If there's a hot spot in the south metro transit scene in 2012, it's Cedar Avenue.

There's major roadwork, bus station construction, and a flurry of other tasks to finish to launch the metro area's first bus rapid transit system between Apple Valley and Bloomington. Dubbed the Red Line, it's supposed to open in November.

It's not light rail, but it's meant to evoke the idea of trains on a track. Sleek buses will roll along dedicated shoulder lanes and stop at distinctive stations along the route every 15 minutes.

Future plans call for additional stations and service into Lakeville sometime between 2012 and 2020, depending on growth and ridership, among other things.

In addition to being the region's first bus rapid transitway -- something that will no doubt be watched carefully -- it's the first major transit line to stretch beyond Hennepin and Ramsey counties, linking suburbanites to more urban areas, and vice versa, regularly throughout the day, not just during the commuter rush.

Staff writers Dave Peterson, Katie Humphrey and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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