It’s all been uphill for Northstar

The route Northstar Commuter Rail has traveled 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.
“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 projection in 2010 — though more recent numbers indicate an uptick.
Weekday fares, starting Aug. 1, for most weekday trips have been cut by a $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’s 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 an 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,” Dayton said.
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, explained Look, is trying to bolster Northstar ridership.
Look points to the groundbreaking 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 explained.
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, Look explained.
The county could risk earning a “reputation” among federal transportation officials as being unreliable, jeopardizing other federal transportation funding, he 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.
You need an intersecting of lines; four, five lines at least, he said.
A line that stops in downtown Minneapolis is not a viable situation, it was argued.
Dayton said at the time people wanted to know what the overall transit system would cost, but officials were reluctant to name a price tag.
If they did that, they argued, it would never be funded.
So the idea was to back their way into it, one line at a time.
Moreover, Dayton argues, that if you asked people going to the metro on 94 if they’d be willing to pay taxes to relief congestion, they would.

By T.W. Budig

  • Radical Hippie

    I’m not surprised their ridership isn’t higher. I would like to get on the train in Big Lake and ride it to Mall Of America. But if I want to attempt that my options are limited. I can only leave in the morning and return late afternoon. Although I enjoy shopping I can’t imagin staying there ALL day. When the powers that be add additional times to their schedule, I’m sure ridership will increase

  • Mark Abraham

    Why is it EVERYTHING the government gets involved in is screwed up? The North star rail was a foolish idea from the start. It has done nothing, I repeat nothing to relive congestion on I-94. It has to be subsidized every year just like the Amtrak,then they go and lower the fare,how about just shutting down the money sucking North star The politicians just don’t learn. WAKE UP and quit spending the taxpayers money so foolishly. Please, please get Governor Dayton the hell out of office before he spends all our money.

  • Mary Hallila

    Sorry Mr Abraham I do not agreee with your negtative comments regarding the North Star rail. I think it is a great idea and wish people would use it more than they do. I use it to go to the airport as well as shopping. Sure the schedule is not ideal, but I just learn to adjust my scheulde so I can make use of the service and hopefully the schedule will be adjusted over time. It would be alomost impossible to accomodate EVERYONE’S schedule. I think more people should give it a chance and appreciate what they have rather than complain.

  • Margie

    I rode the Northstar for 2 years. It Is the best. I would still be riding but again it doesn’t offer enough times during the day and evenings.I now work a 2nd shift job which I can get to work but I can’t get home.It would be nice if they at least covered all 3 shifts

  • joe weidner

    Hey Mary,
    Sorry I agree with Mr. Abraham If you want to use then YOU pay for it