Connecting the Northstar commuter rail line from Target Field to St. Cloud has long been a goal of public transit supporters, but no one knew quite how much the missing link would cost.
Now, a new feasibility study says adding Northstar service to St. Cloud would cost between $36 million and $257 million to build.
Northstar boosters say the study is an important first step in broadening public transportation options in central Minnesota. “This is a historic development for St. Cloud,” said Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud. “People have been demanding getting Northstar to St. Cloud for years and years.”
Northstar currently travels from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, with stops in Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Ramsey and Elk River.
The line was originally envisioned to end in St. Cloud, but the $309 million project ran out of federal money and ended in Big Lake instead. If commuters want to continue to St. Cloud, there is limited service on buses to complete the trip.
Last year, the Legislature appropriated $650,000 to study whether it is feasible to link Northstar to the Amtrak station in St. Cloud.
The ensuing report by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Metro Transit does not make a recommendation — but offers four alternatives for boosting service with varying price tags. It did not estimate potential ridership if Northstar service is expanded.
The weekday alternatives between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, which would be provided in addition to existing service, include:
• A minimum option costing between $36 million and $139 million, adding a trip from St. Cloud to Minneapolis in the morning and a reverse trip in the evening.
• A second alternative, costing from $96 million to $207 million, adding four trips between the two cities in the morning and in the evening. This would include local stops between the two cities.
• A third alternative, with a price tag between $141 million and $190 million, that would add four express trips between the two cities daily.
• A final option that adds nine trips daily between the two cities, including a train leaving Minneapolis later in the evening to St. Cloud. This option would likely cost between $188 million and $257 million.
St. Cloud Pastor James Alberts, who has long advocated for Northstar’s expansion, called the study “pretty comprehensive; it provides multiple options. It tells us what is needed for a Cadillac plan and an economy plan. To me, there’s nothing more important than getting this started.”
Before the pandemic decimated transit ridership, Northstar operated six rush-hour trips on weekday mornings and evenings. Three trains ran each direction on Saturday and Sundays, with extra runs offered for Twins games and other special events.
In October, Northstar weekday ridership averaged 2,550 passengers on weekdays, 260 on Saturdays and 166 on Sundays, according to the study. Ridership for Twins games increased the average by up to 1,000 passengers.
Northstar has long been heavily subsidized — at $19.14 per passenger in 2019 — far more so than Metro Transit bus and light-rail service.
But with the onset of COVID-19, Northstar’s weekday service has been limited to four trips a day, and some wonder how public transit will rebound once the coronavirus is tamed.
“There are a lot of questions about people coming back,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “I’m hearing rumors that companies are looking at abandoning their headquarters and office space in downtown Minneapolis, with security being one reason, and the availability of telecommuting.”
But at the same time, ending a commuter line in Big Lake “really makes you scratch your head. There are no easy answers here,” Torkelson said.
Wolgamott agreed that the pandemic and its economic fallout have dominated business at the Capitol, but he said he’ll still seek feedback from the St. Cloud community about the options offered in the Northstar study.
Because Northstar operates on BNSF Railway’s corridor, the Texas-based rail giant would be deeply involved in any expansion efforts. BNSF declined to comment on the study.