Conductor J.R. Long walked by the Northstar Commuter Rail at Target Field

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Economic, ridership concerns could derail Northstar plans for St. Cloud

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • February 4, 2012 - 9:52 PM

While increasing ridership is vital to extending the Northstar commuter-rail line to St. Cloud, so is "patience" and understanding that the line is part of a regional rail system, the head of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority said last week.

"Everybody expects these projects to be like the Hiawatha [light-rail] line, which was beating 20-year projections in year two," said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, NCDA chairman. "But clearly, Hiawatha is an aberration. Building ridership will simply take a while."

The 41-mile Northstar line runs between Big Lake in Sherburne County and downtown Minneapolis. Ridership has trailed projections for much of the line's two years of existence, the first year by 20 percent. Lower gas prices, mild winter weather, high unemployment and general newness has kept commuters in their cars and away from the train, Lenzmeier said.

A new station in the city of Ramsey, scheduled to open this fall, is projected to add 200 rides per day. But Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look told fellow NCDA board members that Northstar needs to increase the number of rides by 1,000 before considering a 30-mile extension to St. Cloud.

"We're nowhere near Phase 2," Look said.

Look has challenged a funding formula that he believes has Anoka County paying a disproportionate share of the line's current local costs.

At Thursday's NCDA meeting, Look said it is likely to cost $350 million to extend the line to St. Cloud and questioned whether the counties involved -- Hennepin, Anoka, Sherburne and Stearns -- "want a seat at a very expensive table."

Federal funding a key

Look suggested that Anoka County could be "on the hook" for $188 million in a Northstar extension. That clearly baffled some NCDA board members, who said that an extension of Northstar is likely to be funded primarily by federal and state dollars.

"We wouldn't be looking at funding this locally," said Sherburne County Commissioner Larry Farber. "I don't understand why you're bringing up huge numbers."

Look then said that even with federal and state assistance, the counties could be responsible for $26.5 million apiece.

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who is no stranger to the meetings, reminded others at the table: "We're talking about a regional rail system. You wouldn't go forward without federal and state funding."

The Northstar line, which opened in November of 2009, cost $317 million. The federal grant for the line was $156.8 million, and an additional $97.5 million came from state bonding money.

'We'll get you the money'

Nearly three years ago, in March 2009, Vice President Joe Biden said "we'll get you the money" to extend Northstar to St. Cloud.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a longtime advocate of the line, was quick to caution, "It's not going to happen overnight."

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Steinglein said he found Look's comments "very disappointing." He said that while Minneapolis has been the primary benefactor of the Northstar line thus far, Anoka County should promote the line and will ultimately benefit from development around its rail stations.

He said that when the Mendota Bridge was built more than 80 years ago, it was the longest continuous arched concrete bridge in the world.

"The first week it opened, only nine cars used it," Stenglein said. "Thank God for the foresight and patience of my predecessors who financed and built it."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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