Northstar project needs funding, could be derailed

Jason Juno

Funding for the Northstar commuter rail project is in limbo.

It needs a funding commitment from the State Legislature to stay alive, because the Federal Transit Administration classified it as a “not recommended” project in its fiscal year 2006 new starts report, officials said.

The commuter train project would run from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minn. The line would be accessible to the University by taking a bus to the Hiawatha light rail line and then transferring to the commuter rail.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty wrote a letter to legislators, calling the report “an important wake-up call.”

The “not recommended” status only reflects the lack of state money, said Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s press secretary.

McClung said the project is cost-effective and does well in meeting the transportation needs of that area.

He said the administration still expects the federal money, if the House approves the $37.5 million Pawlenty and the Senate have in their bonding bills.

“But if the funding is not passed this year, there’s doubt as to whether the Federal Transit Administration would essentially drop Northstar from their list,” McClung said.

Federal Transit Administration spokesman Paul Griffo said that if the state approves money for the commuter train or if there were another funding source, the administration would have to look at the financial impact again.

Items such as where the funding would come from and the terms of the funding will determine if the project would regain its recommended status, which is necessary to proceed with the project, he said.

The proposed federal share is $132.5 million of the $265 million project, Griffo said.

If Minnesota cannot show progress in getting the money for the line, Northstar could be taken off pre-engineering status, he said.

Then, it “would be back to the drawing board,” he said.

The Northstar project has been on the table in past years. Other transit projects, especially light rail and commuter rail, are popping up in other areas of the country and competing for federal funding.

Griffo said more areas are deciding to go with mass transit.

For example, cities such as Portland, Ore., and Phoenix have seen development and population growth, making transit an option that was not there decades ago, he said.

This translates into higher demand for transit projects, Griffo said.

State Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, opposes the line and told The Associated Press the House will probably pass the bill because of Pawlenty’s efforts.

He said he believes the project is much too expensive to move a small number of people.

The line is projected to carry approximately 5,600 people per day by 2025, according to the Federal Transit Administration Web site.