Commuter rail’s future hinges on state support

The state must approve some of its $88.3 million share this year to keep federal funds for the project.

Jason Juno

Funding discussions for a train line that would go from Minneapolis to the northern suburbs are continuing this legislative session.

The Northstar commuter rail line, which would connect Big Lake, Minn., and downtown Minneapolis, received support from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who put $37.5 million for the project in the bonding bill.

The federal government has kept $132.5 million available for the project. To get that money, the state must approve a portion of its $88.3 million share this year, said Tim Yantos, Northstar Corridor Development Authority executive director and Anoka County employee.

Supporters said the congestion, in one of the country’s fastest growing areas, is such a problem that the rail line is vital. Opponents said they are unsure whether Northstar is the solution.

Yantos said most of the riders would be workers, but there is a “tremendous” amount of University students residing in the St. Cloud, Minn., area.

However, David Levinson, a professor in the civil engineering department, said “very few students will use the Northstar train.” Plus, he said there is a cost in not going with the “next best use” of transportation improvements, which means the money will not go toward an alternative that could be more beneficial to students.

But Pawlenty does not have full support in the Republican party for the project. State Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, does not support it.

Olson said he has not seen any evidence that Northstar would help reduce congestion. In fact, the growth could make congestion an even bigger problem than it is now, he said.

Yantos said he sees that growth as a great opportunity for Anoka County. People like to move next to these lines, he said.

U.S. Highway 10, the main thoroughfare to the northwest suburbs, is “extremely congested,” Yantos said. There is no plan to widen U.S. Highway 10 or Interstate Highway 35W, where people continue their ride to work, he said.

Olson said there are other Twin Cities corridors with more consistent bottlenecks. He said he lives in Big Lake, Minn., and made the drive to the Twin Cities at 8 a.m. Wednesday. He said there were no traffic jams.

He said he has also driven during rush hour peaks and has not slowed his speed below 55 mph to 60 mph. Some days there is congestion, but not every day, he said.

Delaying it costs $10 million each year, Yantos said.

If it is not approved this year, Yantos said the federal money will then go elsewhere.