House needs to move on Northstar project

The irresponsibility of last year’s legislative session leaves the project in jeopardy.

The Northstar commuter rail line, a proposed passenger train service from Big Lake, Minn., to downtown Minneapolis, whose prospects have risen and fallen in a pattern more akin to a roller coaster, once again faces a political test.

To retain federal incentives, possibly as much as $132.5 million, the State Legislature must approve at least a portion of its share. Given the problems the line has faced without federal funding, it would almost certainly die without it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s bonding bill proposal earlier this month included $37.5 million for the project, and the Senate approved that amount Monday in its bonding bill. Thus, the state and, specifically, the north metro are waiting for the House to act.

There is some interesting opposition in the House. Namely, Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, is opposed to the project. Olson doubts demand for the line and thinks congestion in the north metro is not a consistent problem.

The general consensus is that Republican opposition to the Northstar line factored in some Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party victories in House races last fall. A 2002 survey by the Northstar Corridor Development Authority found 77 percent of the corridor’s residents supported the train. Finally, there were many vocal critics of the light rail project who complained no one would ride the train. We don’t hear much from them these days. The demand is there.

The line is also needed. Congestion in the Twin Cities has become considerably more than the minor nuisance it used to be. While the area the Northstar line would serve is by no means the most congested in the metro, it might be the most congested area with existing rail lines available for commuter train use.

Also, the congestion is not going to get better, only worse. The corridor is the fastest-growing area in the state, according to 2002 census data. As the Twin Cities and, specifically, the north and northwestern suburbs expand, authorities must continue to come up with creative solutions to congestion.

The Northstar commuter rail line is an obvious example; it would provide a growing area with better public transit, easing the effects of growth and congestion. The House must pass a bonding bill that authorizes Pawlenty’s funding. But that’s just a start. State and local authorities must get this moving faster, so that commuter rail is a reality in the Northstar corridor soon.