The fastest track to the proposed $400 million passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth may be by bus.

Ham Lake on Monday night became the latest Anoka County city to support the county's quest for a federal grant that would ultimately provide bus transportation along Hwy. 65 from Minneapolis to Cambridge, and possibly to Mora. County officials will pitch the need for the $8 million to $10 million bus service package to the East Bethel City Council tonight.

Full funding for this proposed Central Avenue bus line, which also is being supported by Blaine officials, would probably not be available before 2013, Kate Garwood, Anoka County transportation planner, said Tuesday.

Bus service from Minneapolis currently goes as far north as Blaine, Garwood said. To coordinate a Hwy. 65 bus line to Cambridge, arrangements would have to be made with the Heartland Express line that provides bus service in Isanti and Chisago counties, Garwood said.

Part of the Hwy. 65 bus project includes a transit marketing study with ridership surveys -- and that's where bus and train strategies intersect.

Good advertising

The first stop on the proposed 150-mile rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth is Washington, D.C., where federal funding will determine the line's fate. Even with needed funding, the Northern Lights Express passenger rail line appears five years away, said Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart.

The bus route will run slightly east of the proposed Northern Lights Express track, Garwood said, "but it's still good advertising. It helps people think of transportation alternatives."

The Anoka County cities along the route appear eager for the bus service. Blaine, which is looking for another park-and-ride site, offered a letter supporting the Hwy. 65 bus project, Garwood said.

Ham Lake Mayor Paul Meunier said he was pleased the city's often contentious council "actually went along with it," even if it means the city may eventually have to join the metropolitan Transit Taxing District.

Meunier has not been involved with rail discussions, but said that infrastructure built around the Hwy. 65 corridor to accommodate bus service could facilitate high-speed rail.

"I would think part of the protocol for establishing the ridership for trains is to first establish it for bus, to make sure the interest is there," Meunier said.

Erhart, one of the engines driving the Minneapolis-to-Duluth line, was quick to note that the bus and train projects are being pursued independently of each other.

The Hwy. 65 bus service -- which could run through Hennepin, Anoka, Isanti and Kanabec counties -- could "emphasize the need for a train line that could be used by Minneapolis commuters as well as travelers to Hinckley and Duluth," Erhart said.

"I'd love [Northern Lights Express] to be tied with a bus system, for the same reasons I'm encouraging people to look at a bus system we can coordinate with Northstar," Erhart said, referring to the commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake that opens this fall.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419