Plans are developing for a $130 million transit complex in downtown Minneapolis next to the new Twins ballpark, where someday train passengers from Duluth, St. Cloud and Chicago could mingle with light-rail commuters and bus riders from across the Twin Cities.

Hennepin County is taking the lead on the project although it doesn't operate any transit. It has asked the federal government to pay for the transit crossroads.

The plan emerges out of the increasing concentration of transit services where N. 5th Street crosses railroad tracks just north of the new ballpark. County commissioners discussed the emerging project Thursday.

A key element is to build a concourse on 5th Street. It would connect passengers arriving on a lower-level track of the new Northstar commuter train from Big Lake, scheduled to start operation in the fall, with light-rail transit and sidewalks on street level where 5th crosses the tracks.

Hennepin officials hope the Northstar line eventually will be augmented by rail service to Duluth and high-speed rail from Chicago. The Hiawatha light-rail transit line already is being extended into the area, and the Central light-rail line from St. Paul is planned to join it in 2014. Two other light-rail lines from the southwest and northwest suburbs could eventually reach the area in later years. The Cedar Lake Trail for bikes and walkers also will run through the area.

"This is a hub that is happening," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said Thursday. "It's not a theory anymore."

About 12,600 passengers per day are expected once all possible transit links are built, with a potential of another 13,000 arriving on game days.

The county's goal is to open the facilities by 2014, according to Phil Eckhert, the county's point man on transit and its lead person on the project. The proposal for what planners dub an "inter-modal facility" arises from a workshop last fall that included area business and neighborhood representatives.

The resulting plan proposed the concourse over the tracks, which would be as large as four baseball infields, and adjacent auxiliary space for services such food and ticket sales. That auxiliary space could either be in the adjacent Ford Centre building owned by United Properties or on private land south of the tracks.

The rest of the first phase involves clearing a county-owned building along 5th Street to make room for more pedestrian movement and loading space for light rail, plus parking incorporated into adjacent private development. But commissioners signaled Thursday that they're skeptical that another 1,400 parking spaces called for in the proposal are needed, given the presence of three huge commuter ramps nearby.

Eckhert said the county is taking the lead on the project because it has been in the forefront of advocating for transit in the county. He said the most pressing decision for the County Board is moving ahead on demolishing the county building, which it now uses to house environmental services. The county wants to use $1.5 million in federal stimulus money to do the job. Chairman Mike Opat said the board should make that decision within the next few months.

Eckhert said the county also needs to research how it will proceed with public investments for transit in concert with private developers who may want to capitalize on the large number of commuters passing through. The two most promising sites appear to be the Ford Centre and bare land to its north also owned by United Properties and the undeveloped Hines land east of the tracks.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438