Rail extension to St. Cloud has a ways to go

by Paul Rignell
Contributing writer

Many officials with the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) and other supporters of commuter rail may want Northstar’s Phase II built out to extend the service to St. Cloud. But the trains would need to draw about an 80 percent increase in daily ridership for the federal government to assist in that expansion.

Anoka County Commissioner and NCDA Vice Chair Matt Look told fellow officials Feb. 2 that their four counties may need to come up with $350 million to meet those user goals.

On an average day, the train doors are opening for roughly 2,500 daily riders at the loading stations in Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids, Fridley and Minneapolis (near Target Field). Commuters who take the train into Minneapolis or another city for work are counted twice for round trips.

The federal government gave $157 million in 2009 to enable Northstar’s trains to start running that November (total start-up costs were $317 million), and has pledged to contribute toward Phase II when daily figures reach 4,500 riders.

An additional Anoka County station will be completed for opening in Ramsey next fall, to boost passenger traffic by an estimated 200 riders. Look said during the Feb. 2 meeting of the NCDA, in the county board chambers of the Sherburne County Government Center in Elk River, that surveys have revealed more commuters would ride Northstar with an increase in scheduled trips. But, Look reported, officials from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway have said that a busier ride schedule would necessitate the installation of a third rail main from the Coon Rapids to Fridley stations.

Based on previous construction and easement acquisition costs, Look said, those Coon Rapids-to-Fridley costs could reach $115 million, and extending the tracks down to Target Field and up to Big Lake might bring the tag to $350 million.

With the federal government having covered about one-half of previous capital costs and the state funding one-third, the participating counties have combined to fund the remaining one-sixth of costs.

Considering Anoka, Hennepin, Sherburne and Stearns counties’ formulated shares of the county obligations, Look said that Anoka County could owe $188 million if the NCDA pursued the addition of a third main.

“I’m not sure any of us around this table right now have an appetite to sell that to our constituents,” Look said in the Sherburne County board room.

“I would advocate for one-quarter (25 percent) each, if we’re ever going to do this,” he later added. “That would be the fairest way to do it.”

The four counties’ shares have been determined based on total resident populations within five miles of all existing or proposed routes, not including any areas on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.

In 2005, Anoka County had more than half of the counties’ people (nearly 54 percent) living in those parameters, but in 2011, according to counts for January through November, the two stations in Sherburne County were boarding 56 percent of the fares (190,182 of 341,220 riders) compared with the three stations in Anoka County.

Look had asked for a review of the counties’ shares at the Feb. 2 meeting — perhaps looking to have them readjusted prior to Phase II — because of the ridership figures.

Other county officials responded to Look’s information Feb. 2 by saying the counties would not have to cover future costs by themselves. “This isn’t something we’re going to do locally, and we haven’t historically on any of this,” said Sherburne County Board chair and NCDA member Larry Farber.

“We have no guarantee of federal funds,” Look replied.

“I don’t think we have a project without federal and state funds, because locally I don’t think we can do that,” Farber said in repeating his opinion.

Bill Schreiber, a former north metro legislator who is now a consultant with the Messerli and Kramer law firm and lobbies on Northstar’s behalf in St. Paul, said that Northstar struggled for ridership early based on when its initial funding came into place. “You started at a rather poor time. You didn’t have a choice in that matter,” said Schreiber. “The economy was going in the tank at the time you opened Northstar in November 2009.”

He added that Northstar supporters may have had rose-colored visions for commuter rail based on unexpected early successes for the Hiawatha rail line connecting Mall of America with downtown Minneapolis. In the Hiawatha line’s second year, he said, “they were beating 20-year projections.”

Stearns County Commissioner DeWayne Mareck said he feels that some of the factors which have put passengers on Northstar already will eventually bring many more of them.

“I think that congestion, as it grows, is going to change people’s behavior. I think gas prices, as they grow, will change people’s behavior. I think that as people understand the system, it will change their behavior,” Mareck said.

The NCDA executive board has its next quarterly meeting scheduled for May 3.