Northstar backers seek Legislative support

Nathan Hall

Minnesota’s first commuter railroad might still go forward, despite a national economic decline and the subsequent reduction of state transportation funds.

Northstar Corridor commuter rail line supporters are seeking $123.2 million from the Legislature. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is considering the proposal, and the Metropolitan Council has included Northstar as an integral part of its 2025 transportation budget.

Project coordinators are also entertaining the possibility of using private investments to get Northstar off the ground.

“What I hear is that the University of Minnesota is the number one destination for Anoka commuters,” said Paul McCarron, a former Anoka County commissioner and spokesman for the Northstar project.

McCarron said a significant number of University students and faculty reside in the Northstar Corridor and would use the railroad if it were available.

Currently, 6,663 students commute to the University from outside the Twin Cities area, according to the University’s Department of Institutional Research and Reporting.

President George W. Bush included $147 million for Northstar in his previous federal transit budget but withdrew federal money after the bill for local funding was killed during former Gov. Jesse Ventura’s administration.

Ventura supported Northstar, but former House Transportation Finance Committee chairwoman Carol Molnau – currently the state’s lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner – repeatedly blocked allocation of the required $120 million state matching grant.

“Molnau is among Minnesota’s most effective opponents of smart growth initiatives,” according to the Web site for the North Star Action Network, a Sierra Club subsidiary. “Her own farm benefited from real estate transactions concerning the family farm adjacent to the right of way of the new Highway 212 in Chaska.”

The railway would connect the St. Cloud area with downtown Minneapolis alongside existing highways and would run on existing rail tracks the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway already uses.

Connections to city buses and light rail transit would be provided at no additional cost to riders.

According to railroad proponents, St. Cloud’s population will increase 50 percent by 2025.

Paul Anton, an economic consultant who has attended two recent Pawlenty meetings regarding the Northstar proposal, said “there isn’t a chance at all” of private investment since “there’s no money in it.”

“Many cities are under unprecedented economic stress right now, but it’s not going to last forever, and the project is so valuable to Minnesota as a whole that they’ll have to at least consider it,” Anton said. “Its possible ridership figures are actually higher than are currently being projected.”

However, Anton said, city governments should be careful with bonds since “they, of course, eventually have to be paid back.”

A similar railroad system in Chicago handles over 300,000 trips every weekday, according to the Federal Transit Authority’s National Transit Database.

Comparable rail systems are also in place in Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates between 9,000 and 10,000 potential riders per day if Northstar is completed by 2005.

Metropolitan Council figures show the Northstar project would cost $2.8 million per mile for its 82 miles, compared to approximately $4 million per mile for expanding the current highway system.

Those opposing the railroad said railroads are too noisy and will encourage urban sprawl.

“Minnesota lacks a dedicated sales tax devoted exclusively to transportation projects, unlike many other regions our size,” said Barbara Thoman, program director for local nonprofit Transit for Livable Communities. “Roads don’t have to go through the State Legislature and therefore don’t have to be so heavily scrutinized.”

Thoman said MnDOT receives funds from two constitutionally mandated revenue streams: gas tax revenue and license tab fees.

If the project receives the $123.2 million bond, service for the 11 stations could begin as early as 2006.

In late February, Pawlenty said he expected a “significant” contribution from the 30 local counties affected to offset the estimated $15 million in annual Northstar line operating costs.

Seventeen trains would run per day at a top speed of 72 mph. A one-way ticket would cost $4.

“Part of the reason government was created in the first place was to provide adequate transportation for the people,” McCarron said. “No transit system in the world pays its own way; it needs a subsidy.”

Nathan Hall covers transportation and the environment and welcomes comments at [email protected]