Northstar: An epic Capitol transportation battle

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

The route Northstar commuter rail has travelled seems all uphill.

The commuter line — defined as “heavy” rail in transit lingo as regular railroad tracks are used — came to more stops at the Legislature than it makes along its 40-mile route between Big Lake and Minneapolis.

Northstar ranks high on the list of epic transportation battles at the State Capitol.

Former Gov. Jesse Ventura pushed the project, the governor seeking $120 million in bonding to help build an 82-mile line from Minneapolis to St. Cloud/Rice.

But the proposal was a hard sell, the ensuing years seeing Northstar supporters red-faced and teary-eyed on the House floor, with a Sherburne County Republican lawmaker portraying Northstar as a metallic getaway horse criminal elements would ride to plunder suburban communities.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty eventually backed Northstar, but Big Lake became the end of the line instead of St. Cloud.

And that’s likely where things will stay, at least for now, indicated Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA).

“There’s no sense even going down that road,” said Lenzmeier of pursuing a line extension.

Northstar has failed to meet earlier ridership expectations — about 20 percent below projections in 2010 — though more recent numbers indicate an uptick.

Starting Aug. 1, weekday fares for most weekday trips have been cut by $1 and Metro Transit is ratcheting up line promotions.

Lenzmeier isn’t panicking.

“It’s tough right now. But that’s not unusual (for a new transit lines),” he said.

Lenzmeier views lower gas prices, the recession and other unforeseen factors hurting Northstar ridership.

In terms of promotion, he suggests Northstar be billed as affordable transportation for students, allowing fast and reliable transit between home and classroom.

Although the line ends in Big Lake, link buses run between St. Cloud and Big Lake and have proven popular.

Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, who lobbied Northstar heavily at the State Capitol, insists the line and other transit projects are essential to his county’s future success.

“Whoever builds it (transit) first will out compete the rest of the metro area,” said Erhart, saying counties and cities are clamoring for transit.

“It’s not the timing we expected it to be, with the Great Recession,” he said of the Northstar startup three years ago.

“It should have gone all the way to St. Cloud, but it didn’t because it was so political,” Erhart said.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton agrees. “I have a serious problem with the line with how it has been handled so far,” Dayton said.

Dayton, recalling conversations he had while serving in the U.S. Senate, said transportation officials were reluctant to discuss the overall costs of transit. If they did, the projects would never be funded, the logic went, Dayton explained.

So instead, officials opted to “back in” on a project-to-project basis.

Dayton questions the perceived strategy.

“You have to have intersecting number of lines — four, five lines at least,” he said of achieving success.

Northstar was hobbled from the start, Dayton argued. “It doesn’t even go to St. Cloud, for crying out loud,” he said. “I fault the previous (Pawlenty) administration for that.”

Anoka County Regional Railroad Authority Chairman Matt Look also believes Northstar was under built.

Trips aren’t frequent enough — people are afraid to ride it, Look explained.

While extending the line to St. Cloud was “not a bad plan,” he styled it unlikely.

The line’s ridership would need to double in order to justify it, Look explained.

The Anoka County Board, said Look, is trying to bolster Northstar ridership.

Look points to the ground breaking for a Ramsey Northstar Station last spring as an example of the board’s support.

Potentially, Northstar could benefit by a 25 percent “bump” in ridership just from the Ramsey station, Look said.

Anoka County contributed about $1 million toward the project.

Plans call for the Ramsey station to open around Thanksgiving.

There are commissioners on the county board, Look explained, who view Northstar as a mistake.

But attempting to back away from the line would be difficult and perhaps unwise, he said.

The county could risk earning a “reputation” among federal transportation officials as being unreliable, jeopardizing other federal transportation funding, Look said.

For his part, Lenzmeier depicts the “new crew” on the Anoka County Board as viewing Northstar as an illegitimate child they’re forced to take care of.

One day Minnesotans will take Northstar for granted, as they do now with I-94, Lenzmeier said.

The Anoka County Board in June approved a resolution to withdraw from the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, a joint powers board formed to explore renewing the passenger rail service from Duluth to Minneapolis.

Look, who criticized the alliance for spending on a project that might not happen for decades, indicated the idea the alliance can survive without Anoka County as farfetched.

“Good luck,” he said.