Ever since the first Northstar commuter rail train rolled out of downtown Minneapolis in 2009, central Minnesota mass transit advocates have argued the route should extend to St. Cloud instead of stopping at Big Lake.
Proponents counter the costs and ridership estimates don’t justify extending the service. Commuters between St. Cloud and Minneapolis still contend with the increasing traffic on U.S. Hwy. 10 and Interstate Hwy. 94 and paying for gas and parking.
Again this year, Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud) introduced a bill that would extend Northstar to St. Cloud. Knoblach contends the extension could be done with no state funding. Knoblach says the trains could use St. Cloud’s Amtrak station and the rails and train equipment are already in place.
On the other side of the Capitol, Gov. Dayton’s budget includes $850,000 to study the issue.
Knoblach’s suggestion deserves serious debate in the Legislature and the legislators should approve the money Dayton wants for a study.
Opponents say there’s no way the extension can happen without significant state funding. The cost is closer to $40 million, they argue.
According to the Minneapolis StarTribune, MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said “The idea it could be done for free is ludicrous.”
About $10 million would be needed to upgrade the Amtrak station so it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Knoblach counters that Stearns County and the city of St. Cloud could help fund the station improvements. Another $12.5 million would be needed for additional equipment, a study completed for last year’s legislative session found.
According to Metro Transit, there were about 794,000 rides on the Northstar last year, or about 2,800 each weekday. That’s a 12-percent increase over 2016.
Would there be more riders if the train traveled to St. Cloud instead of stopping in Big Lake, 27 miles from St. Cloud?
One way to find out is to do the study.
Today’s trip between St. Cloud and Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis involves a bus ride or driving from St. Cloud to the Big Lake station to catch the train. That’s not a very seamless or convenient option.
Connecting St. Cloud with the Twin Cities would benefit both communities. Riders would find it easier to get to work or college. In today’s tight job markert, central Minnesota employers might find it easier to recruit workers from a wider area. Families traveling to the Twin Cities for sports, cultural or entertainment events might find it more fun and less stressful than driving.
Traffic continues to clog I-94 in both directions. The recent addition of a third lane in the Rogers area hasn’t eased the jam.
The Republican controlled Legislature, whose members don’t like mass transit, are unlikely to put big money behind a Northstar extension. But just saying “No” is not a transportation strategy.
A decade is long enough to debate the merits of finally completing the Northstar line. It’s time for a serious debate and in-depth study for a service that could benefit businesses and riders in central Minnesota as well as the Twin Cities.