The latest update from the chaos known as the 2016 Minnesota legislative session is that Rep. Jim Knoblach’s Northstar proposal is dead, off the tracks, demolished, derailed, kaput.
Knoblach proposed a cost-neutral experiment to trade a couple of Northstar commuter-rail trips to St. Cloud instead of stopping at Big Lake, just 27 miles away. The plan called for using the existing Amtrak station in east St. Cloud.
However, the plan ran into the Gov. Mark Dayton Express. Charlie Zelle, his transportation commissioner, and Adam Duinick, the Metropolitan Council chairman, wrote in an April 16 commentary in the St. Cloud Times that it would cost $43 million, not including operating costs nor BNSF Railway leases, to extend the service to St. Cloud. Clearly, Dayton wants to see a multimillion-dollar project to build a permanent station and commit to full daily service.
Making such a massive initial investment is unwise, especially given that Northstar ridership numbers to Big Lake have never met expectations. Not to mention nobody knows how much of an annual subsidy in taxpayer dollars would be needed for St. Cloud operating costs. On the flip side, though, Knoblach’s idea of a cost-neutral experiment seems unrealistic. Clearly, some investments will be needed for station and safety improvements.
So the key here is compromise. Determine what it will cost to do a short-term experiment. Perhaps the compromise needs to be a few million dollars to cover some expenses and operating costs for a one-year experiment. Not $43 million plus operating costs permanently. No, just a couple of million for a one-year test.
Knowing nothing is really dead until the Legislature adjourns, Knoblach and fellow area legislators could seek funding through the bonding bill, via any transportation bill or through spending some of the state’s $900 million surplus.
Because it is an election year, Knoblach and the other St. Cloud-area lawmakers need to exercise their political muscle to make sure the plan is approved. Because Dayton’s administration has long backed Northstar to St. Cloud, it would be foolish not to support a fiscally constrained experiment.
Finally, Knoblach has a unique position of power and influence in his role as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He will be an important player in the final budget decisions made at the conclusion of the session (usually behind closed doors) on key bills.
Both sides need to avoid a permanent train wreck and find a compromise to test St. Cloud service.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ST. CLOUD TIMES