Question: When is a subsidy not a subsidy?
Answer: When the money is used to support public transit, such as Northstar Commuter Rail, Republicans in the state Legislature call the money a subsidy. When it’s used to build highways, the money is an investment.
Ten years after the first trains rolled, there’s a serious effort to extend Northstar Commuter to St. Cloud. Rep. Dan Wolgamott (DFL-St. Cloud) has sponsored a bill that would provide $7.3 million to get the project started. Of that amount, $850,000 would pay for an analysis to see if an extension is appropriate. The remaining money would fund preliminary work, such as engineering, environmental analysis and land acquisition. Cost estimates for extending Northstar to St. Cloud have varied throughout the years, from $40 million to $150 million.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to ease traffic and fix wear and tear on the highway, the Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to spend $350 million during the next three years to add lanes to Interstate Highway 94, repair the roadway and add interchanges. There’s no talk of that money subsidizing freeway drivers.
During a Feb. 22 hearing in St. Cloud, Republicans asked if extending Northstar from Big Lake to St. Cloud would lower the commuter lines’s subsidy. It’s a fair question. The most recent figures show each of the almost 800,000 annual passengers comes with an $18 subsidy. That’s more than $14 million a year.
Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell) introduced another bill to study whether Northstar should run all the way to Camp Ripley, north of Little Falls. O’Driscoll argues in time of emergency, Northstar could be used to evacuate Twin Cities residents to Ripley for medical care and refuge.
About 150 people attended the hearing and about 50 of them spoke in support of Wolgamott’s bill including public officials, business leaders, railway workers, students and commuters.
Business leaders say the line could bring workers to the St. Cloud area as well as delivering workers to the Twin Cities. Central Minnesota residents could travel safely in all weather conditions, without clogging I-94, for recreation, medical care and entertainment. After arriving at the Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis, it’s a few steps to transfer to buses and trains. The Blue and Green light rail lines connect St. Paul, the University of Minnesota, the airport and the Mall of America.
Northstar opened in 2009. It cost $320 million and was funded by the federal ($161.9 million) and state ($98.6 million) governments, the regional rail authorities for Anoka ($34.8 million), Hennepin ($8 million) and Sherburne ($8.2 million) counties, the Metropolitan Council ($5.9 million) and the Minnesota Twins ($2.6 million). The 40-mile stretch ends at Big Lake and riders need to transfer to a bus to complete the trip to St. Cloud.
Area legislators should get behind Wolgamott’s bill and stop hiding behind the subsidy question. Rep. Tama Theis (R-St. Cloud) joined Wolgamott as a co-author. Lisa Demuth (R-Cold Spring) should support the measure. O’Driscoll should drop his Camp Ripley study. It stands no chance in the DFL-controlled House anyway and he should back Wolgamott’s plan. In the Senate, Jerry Relph (R-St. Cloud) has introduced a companion bill. Sen. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville) should sign on to it.
All transportation – highways, airports, trains – receive some form of “subsidy.” All of it comes from tax money. It’s time for the Legislature to finish the job started 10 years ago and bring Northstar to St. Cloud.