Is St. Cloud commuter rail to get a boost?

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2009 - 10:02 PM

Vice President Joe Biden seemed to say funds to extend the Northstar line are coming, and local officials are hopeful.

A day after Vice President Joe Biden promised "we'll get you the money" to extend the Northstar commuter rail line to St. Cloud, local officials wondered Friday where the money might come from and Sen. Amy Klobuchar cautioned, "It's not going to happen overnight."

Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she took Biden's comments Thursday in St. Cloud as "a general commitment to rail in Minnesota" and said there are two potential sources that could fund an extension of Northstar.

The 40-mile line from Minneapolis to Big Lake, scheduled to open this fall, could be extended with federal dollars from an $8 billion bill targeted for inner-city and high-speed rail, Klobuchar said Friday from Washington. Or the Federal Transit Administration could provide funding through an $8.4 billion bill -- with $94 million of that targeted for Minnesota, Klobuchar said.

For now, though, St. Cloud is seeking money for a sophisticated bus line that will better connect the city to Big Lake and the Northstar line. Northstar officials met Friday for a previously scheduled meeting in which they planned to discuss Phase 2 of the line, which would ultimately connect Big Lake and St. Cloud by rail.

That was the original idea, when officials from several counties began meeting 14 years ago. But what started as a $260 million plan for a commuter train from Minneapolis to St. Cloud was derailed by politics -- and, years later, has became a $310 million rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake, with St. Cloud left waiting at the station.

"The counties would have to participate in the investment, but connecting Minneapolis to St. Cloud would make this an inner-city rail line and open it up to stimulus money," said Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing.

"It's sure exciting to have the vice president of the United States on our side."

The $787 billion question

Biden, accompanied by Klobuchar in St. Cloud during the 90-minute town hall meeting, was responding to a man who wanted to know if any of the $787 billion in stimulus money could be used to extend the Northstar line to St. Cloud. When Klobuchar said aloud, "Mr. Vice President, they want the rail," Biden responded: "Then we'll get you the money to build the rail."

Biden spent much of his nearly three decades in the Senate riding trains, making daily round trips between his home in Wilmington, Del., and Washington, D.C.

Before Biden's arrival in St. Cloud, his staff went on a research mission, calling Northstar officials, said Tim Yantos, Northstar project director.

"We're thrilled that the vice president of the United States has shown interest," Yantos said. Still, he added that he was surprised and encouraged by Biden's comment.

So was Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, who has championed the Northstar line and is working to lay the foundation for a $400 million passenger line from Minneapolis to Duluth that could open in less than four years, pending funding.

"When you have the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation [Minnesota's Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.] on your side, and now the attention of the vice president, you have to believe that it's possible to extend the Northstar commuter line to St. Cloud and maybe beyond," Erhart said.

He said the original plan was to have the line go west of St. Cloud, to the city of Rice. But he doesn't want to stop there. He wondered if there will be another $60 million in federal funding for another main rail line that would run from Interstate 694, in the northern metro area, to a station near Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids.

"We'd like to connect the whole state by rail," he said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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