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Minnesota proposes $37.5 million for commuter rail

Laurie Blake
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 line.

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 support it.

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. Cloud.

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 FTA.

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 census figures.

The House Transportation Finance Committee has scheduled its first hearing on the Northstar for Tuesday.

What's next?
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," Pawlenty said.

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 264,000.

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 the train.

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 problems."

Other bonding
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 bridges.

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.