Minneapolis Star Tribune
Departing from a roads-only transportation focus, Gov. Tim
Pawlenty announced this week that he will ask the Legislature
to approve $37.5 million to advance Minnesota's first commuter-rail
The proposed Northstar line would extend 40 miles from downtown
Minneapolis northwest to Big Lake on existing freight tracks
operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. If
funding is finalized, 18 trains eight in the morning,
eight in the evening and one round trip at midday could
be running in 2008.
The cost of buying trains, making the tracks safe for dual
use and building stations is estimated at $265 million. Half
of that would be expected to come from the federal government.
Pawlenty proposes that the state share the other half in a
two-thirds/one-third split with counties along the rail line.
Northstar rail line
After years of skepticism, Pawlenty said he is now satisfied
that the cost and projected ridership would make Northstar
the kind of cost-effective transit he can support.
To arrive at the decision, Pawlenty spoke personally with
officials at the Federal Transit Administration. The agency
has adopted strict ranking criteria to choose from among about
240 rail projects nationwide seeking federal funds.
"Even under this new rigorous analysis, the project
does pretty well," Pawlenty said. "It's pretty hard
to argue that the FTA is biased, and it's hard to argue that
they are not rigorous. I put significant weight in the FTA's
assessment of the project."
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also is the state's transportation
commissioner, has reservations about the project and did not
join Pawlenty in Anoka to make the Northstar announcement.
Pawlenty said Molnau will be a "team player" in
the administration's effort to promote the rail line.
"The governor and I have agreed not to agree on this
project," Molnau said later. Cost and ridership continue
to concern her, she said, but she added, "I am a team
player." If the project proceeds, she said, she will
The FTA criteria
The rail line Pawlenty has endorsed is shorter and cheaper
than the one originally proposed.
For three years 2000, 2001 and 2002 proponents
of the rail line unsuccessfully sought state funding of an
82-mile commuter link between downtown Minneapolis and St.
The longer line earned coveted "recommended" status
from the FTA because the agency favored rail projects that
were likely to attract more new riders to transit than comparable
bus lines. Last year, the line lost the FTA recommended status
because it lacked state funding.
Now the FTA is giving high rank only to projects that justify
the investment in rail by saving riders time when compared
with bus service.
The Northstar line has to be cut in half -- ending at Big
Lake instead of St. Cloud -- to regain the FTA recommended
rating. Shortening the line and eliminating stations at Foley
Boulevard in Coon Rapids and northeast Minneapolis would allow
a commuter on the Northstar to make the trip 28 minutes faster
than on a bus.
This is expected to save Hwy. 10 corridor commuters 892,000
travel hours per year, compared with times on the best busway,
according to an updated project analysis submitted to the
But cutting the line in half and eliminating stations has
reduced forecasted ridership from 15,800 trips a day between
Minneapolis and St. Cloud in 2025 to 5,600 trips a day between
Minneapolis and Big Lake. The predictions are based on 2000
The House Transportation Finance Committee has scheduled
its first hearing on the Northstar for Tuesday.
If the Legislature approves the funding proposed by Pawlenty,
the project will be in line for FTA approval. If the agency
approves the project, it will move to the final design stage.
Negotiations continue with Burlington Northern Sante Fe,
speeded by a mediator hired by the Northstar Corridor Development
Authority -- the governing body comprising cities and counties
along the line. The railroad official taking part in the talks
could not be reached for comment, but Ken Stevens, a consultant
for the Northstar Development Authority, said Burlington Northern
is supportive. The two sides have not yet agreed, however,
on how much money must be spent to make the tracks safe and
efficient for freight and passenger use.
Arriving at a final figure with Burlington Northern may add
to the final cost of the project.
Highway 10 area growth
The northwest corridor that would be served by the commuter
rail line is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state.
"It's a high-growth, high-density corridor, and it needs
relief [from traffic congestion], and it needs commuter options,"
Between 2000 and 2030, the state's population is expected
to grow by 1.3 million, from about 5 million to 6.3 million,
according to the state demographer. The suburban and rural
counties nearest to the line are expected to account for about
No improvements are planned for heavily congested Hwy. 10,
which serves the area to the northwest. And the north metro
area also has some of the region's longest average commutes,
which might be more of an incentive to take the train.
Pawlenty drew praise and criticism for getting on board with
David Strom, legislative director of the Taxpayers League,
a group that lobbies for lower taxes and spending, said: "The
simplest cost-benefit analysis shows that commuter rail is
an even worse deal for taxpayers than light rail."
In the Legislature, the DFL-controlled Senate has supported
the Northstar project for years, and the Republican-controlled
House has opposed it.
"I welcome the governor into the fold of folks who support
commuter rail, despite his past opposition," said Sen.
Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, chairman of the Senate Transportation
Policy and Budget Division. "I just hope his support
hasn't come too late; the line has already been cut in half
and stations have been eliminated."
Rep. William Kuisle, R-Rochester, chairman of the House Transportation
Finance Committee, said: "While I applaud the governor
for requiring a local match on both the building and operating
of the Northstar . . . a long-range plan by the state needs
to be in place first. This is how the state gets into budget
The Northstar funding would be part of an $85.5 million transportation
bonding proposal that Pawlenty said would include $10 million
for the proposed Cedar Avenue busway from Lakeville to the
Mall of America. And to appeal to outstate legislators, the
proposal would include $10 million for improvements to roads
of state and regional significance and $28 million to help
replace about 170 outstate bridges. Pawlenty said the state's
$28 million would attract $40 million in federal funds for
The feasibility of a Cedar Avenue busway has been studied
since 1999. The plan is to strengthen and widen shoulders
or make a median lane for rapid bus service. It would connect
commuters from the southern suburbs with the Hiawatha light-rail
line at the Mall of America and provide direct express buses
to downtown Minneapolis.
The capital cost for the commuter-rail line is estimated
at $265 million. Pawlenty said, however, that it's possible
that the estimate may increase as costs are refined.
The $37.5 million that Pawlenty proposes to provide with
bonds this year would have to be followed in 2006 with another
unspecified installment to complete the state share.
Just as he asked Hennepin County to pick up half of what
it costs to operate the Hiawatha light-rail line beyond what
is collected in fares, Pawlenty also would expect counties
along the commuter rail line to help cover operating costs.
Fares would pay one-third, federal subsidies another third
and the state and counties would split the remaining third.
Pawlenty said he had assurances from local officials that
they would come up with their share. The matter is expected
to be discussed at a meeting of the Northstar Corridor Development
Authority this month. Anoka, Benton, Hennepin, Morrison and
Sherburne counties all are members.