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Knoblach aims to extend Northstar to St. Cloud

State Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, on Tuesday introduced a bill to expand the Northstar commuter rail line to St. Cloud, but he wants to require the state to add 27 miles to the route without additional funding.

But state and regional officials say a rail expansion proposal without funding is unrealistic. The 40-mile route now runs between Target Field in downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake.

The Northstar commuter rail station in Big Lake serves buses that bring commuters from St. Cloud and Becker to the line. The Northstar line currently has five trips going into Minneapolis in the morning and five coming back in the evening with one trip heading the opposite direction in peak hours. Staff photo: Bill Klotz

The Northstar commuter rail station in Big Lake serves buses that bring commuters from St. Cloud and Becker to the line. The Northstar line currently has five trips going into Minneapolis in the morning and five coming back in the evening with one trip heading the opposite direction in peak hours. Staff photo: Bill Klotz

Knoblach, who announced the plan Monday, proposes cutting one of the daily trips between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis so that Northstar could offer a trip in the morning from St. Cloud to Minneapolis and a trip back in the evening.

Weekday Northstar trips between Big Lake and Minneapolis would be reduced to four and the number of weekend trips would drop to two. The bill proposes using the existing St. Cloud Amtrak station.

“We already have the train engines, train cars, and a train station,” Knoblach said in a press release. “The number of miles the train is operating over each week will be almost exactly the same, so I don’t expect there to be any additional costs to the state.”

The bill would require planners to start negotiating with BNSF Railway for the rights to use an existing freight rail route to St. Cloud. The $320 million line opened in 2009 and runs on an existing BNSF railroad, an agreement that added more than $107 million to the project, according to Metro Transit.

The Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Department of Transportation released a joint statement Monday, agreeing the route should be extended but said funding is needed.

“It’s not feasible to extend service, build additional track, serve more people, and have it cost the same,” Met Council Chair Adam Duininck and MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said in the statement.

“It is unlikely that BNSF railroad would allow the state to operate on its track at no additional cost,” the officials said.

BNSF is open to discussing an extension, said Amy McBeth, spokesperson for the railway.

If the railroad is approached, “we’ll discuss it in the context of our passenger rail principles,” McBeth said Tuesday. “Those principles include things like protecting our current and future freight capacity.”

Preliminary cost estimates to build out the Northstar Line come to $40 million to $50 million, not including permission to use the BNSF railway or operating costs, Met Council spokesperson Kate Brickman said in an email.

When the line was initially pitched, St. Cloud was on the route. The project was stopped at Big Lake to make the line more competitive for federal funding, said John Menter, director of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.

Studies in 2010 showed the number of projected riders would not outweigh the estimated cost to expand at that time, Menter said.

But the Northstar Link, a bus service that carries an average of 200 weekday riders in St. Cloud and Becker and drops them off in Big Lake, has been growing since 2009. The number of riders dipped slightly last year, but is starting to increase again, Menter said.

“There was a conscious effort by the counties involved in Northstar to focus on trying to build the ridership over time so that at some point … it may make more sense to complete that segment,” he said.

The proposal comes as ridership on the rail line is beginning to recover after a shaky 2014. Reliability problems due to 2014 track construction caused a ridership dip, according to Metro Transit. Usage rose from about 721,000 rides in 2014 to more than 722,600 in 2015.

But usage is still significantly down from 2013, when Northstar logged 787,000 rides,according to Metro Transit.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he thinks expanding the line to St. Cloud would increase riders “exponentially.”

“The community has been strongly supportive of extending the rail to the city,” he said. “Having something that’s seamless where you get right on the train and get to your destination would be preferable and would increase riders.”

Knoblach also estimated ridership would rise alongside revenue.

The line “would now be collecting fares in St. Cloud it does not now receive,” he said in the press release. “I don’t think there will be much reduction in ridership by dropping to four round trips instead of five from Big Lake.”

Howie Padilla, a spokesperson for Metro Transit, isn’t as confident reducing daily trips won’t negatively affect ridership.

“Part of what has drawn people back and is helping the Northstar gain in ridership … is that not only frequency, but also the dependability of having each of those rides,” he said.

Knoblach’s bill is co-authored by House Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. A companion bill is being carried by Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud.

The proposal is set to be discussed by the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee this week.

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