Question raised on train funding

by Paul Rignell
Contributing writer

Funding for potential expansion of the Northstar rail line will be up for discussion Feb. 2 when representatives of four counties plus Minneapolis, St. Cloud and several other cities between them gather for an annual meeting at the Sherburne County Government Center in Elk River.

The Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) will call its meeting, open to the public, at 3 p.m. in the county board chambers.

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who is also vice chair of the NCDA, asked for corridor funding to be added to the agenda through NCDA chair Leigh Lenzmeier, a Stearns County commissioner, the Star News learned from Sherburne County Deputy Administrator Luci Botzek.

Look, whose Anoka County district includes all of Ramsey and Nowthen plus parts of Anoka and St. Francis, questioned at a previous meeting Jan. 20 whether the financial obligations currently assigned to four individual counties would be fair going forward.

The participating counties, which all either have or someday could have active stations along the commuter rail line, now pay one-sixth of the line’s operating and capital costs not covered by fares. State dollars cover one-third of the costs, and the first train started to move in November 2009 only after the federal government pledged to cover the remaining one-half of costs starting with a $157 million grant in 2007.

Historically, the counties’ share of costs has been divided based on resident populations within five miles of existing or proposed tracks. Most recent counts that the NCDA has included within its formula include 232,521 residents in Anoka County, 80,971 in Stearns County, 60,830 in Hennepin County and 56,851 in Sherburne County. Thus, more than half of the counties’ cost is assigned to Anoka County, which has three rail stations in Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley and a fourth to open next fall in Ramsey.

But data from January through November 2011 show more than half of Northstar’s passengers board for their trips into downtown Minneapolis from Sherburne County’s two stations in Big Lake and Elk River. The further away from Minneapolis, the more fares that are collected at a station: Big Lake counted 97,699 passengers in those 11 months, 92,483 in Elk River, 62,297 in Anoka, 62,176 in Coon Rapids and 26,565 in Fridley.

Look noted, in speaking with the Star News, that he is seeking a review of counties’ shares relevant only to Phase II for the Northstar Corridor, which could at some point bring a rail station to St. Cloud. Many commuters from that city and elsewhere in Stearns County plus neighboring Benton County take the train to Minneapolis now, but their closest boarding option is to ride a Northstar bus link from St. Cloud to Big Lake.

“I want us to have an open dialog (Feb. 2), good discussion,” Look said.

Anoka County has funded its portion of Northstar costs through implementing a quarter-cent sales tax. Sherburne County sets an annual regional rail levy through which costs are assessed among property owners.

According to NCDA public information consultant Jill Brown, the counts for resident populations within five miles of the Northstar route have been revised twice, once in the mid-2000s when Benton County withdrew from the agreement (though its cities of Rice and Sauk Rapids are still in the NCDA) and again in May 2010, when Stearns County joined the budgeting plan.

Sherburne County’s representatives at the meeting Feb. 2 should include Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, of Palmer Township, whose county district includes eastern St. Cloud and also Becker, where a map shows another proposed Northstar station but with even less certainty. “The next place for it to go is St. Cloud,” Schmiesing told the Star News.

“I’d expect there to be some discussion (Feb. 2), but not a lot of discussion,” he said. “At this point, no one really has any information. … Everyone has obligations that they would have to consider.”

If a majority of involved parties should decide to shift more burden to Sherburne County down the road, “we (the county) would have to reconsider where we’re at with this whole thing,” said Schmiesing.

He added that the line is growing in use, with ridership up 7 percent in 2011 over 2010.