All aboard for the Northstar commuter rail line, from Minneapolis to Big Lake. Next stop ... St. Cloud?

Moments after Thomas Barrett, the U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, signed an agreement Tuesday committing $156.8 million in federal funding toward the $320 million Northstar line, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said what others have hoped for a decade:

"I want it to go to St. Cloud," she said from Washington in a taped message that was played to an audience that included Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Congressman Keith Ellison, state legislators, and officials from the three counties involved, Anoka, Hennepin and Sherburne.

They had gathered at the Anoka County Government Center for the historic signing and to listen to Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, the engine who has driven this train, thus far.

With the line's debut looming in 2009 and Pawlenty seated behind him, Erhart stood at the podium and told the story of approaching the governor in his office at the Capitol six years ago, telling him, "Governor, you have to support this."

Erhart said he worried at the time that "I was maybe a little too strong." As Erhart walked out of Pawlenty's office, the governor grabbed him by the shoulder, Erhart recalled.

"Stay persistent," Pawlenty told him.

Project costs doubled

At times, Erhart had to wonder if he was persistent enough. He said after Tuesday's news conference that had an agreement with the federal government been signed in 2003, as had once been hoped, the entire project would have cost $165 million and the Northstar line would have extended from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. The cost has doubled, Erhart noted, and the route has been cut nearly in half.

The second phase of Northstar also would have included a stop in the Benton County town of Rice.

Yet, five weeks after Benton County announced it was quitting the project, former Benton County Commissioner Duane Grandy was in Anoka to celebrate the federal grant that will pay for half of Northstar's costs and enable the release of an additional $97.5 million in state bonding money for the project.

Grandy, who retired from the Benton County Board 11 months ago, chaired the Northstar Corridor project for five years. He recalled his first meeting in 1997 -- in St. Cloud.

"After they get the train up and running in 2009, they'll be working on Phase 2," he said of a plan that will begin with buses running from Big Lake to St. Cloud. "I think Benton County will come around again, but I don't know what it will take."

Erhart talked about bringing in Stearns County and the city of St. Cloud as Northstar partners.

It was the partnerships that already have embraced the Northstar project that have made impressions from Minnesota to Washington.

Riding the rails together

"Today's remarkable event once again proves the power of dreaming new dreams and working together as partners," Sen. Norm Coleman said in a videotaped statement played for the dignitaries in Anoka. "This project brought business, government, nonprofits and citizens together under a shared vision for a better transportation future."

Pawlenty, who envisions train rides from Big Lake to Minneapolis taking 40 minutes, also praised the public-private and local-state partnerships. So did Barrett.

After declaring that Northstar could now "move off the drawing board and onto the rails," the deputy transportation secretary saluted Minnesota for "being innovative" and said the federal government would give other Minnesota projects strong consideration -- including ultimately extending Northstar to St. Cloud.

"Get this done first," he said after the event. "The money's there. Now, do it."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419