State officials are enthusiastic about a deal they say they have with Burlington Northern Santa Fe. For a one-time payment of about $108 million, Northstar can run passenger trains on BNSF rail lines.
Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Bob McFarlin says the agreement in principle with BNSF is a key to the future of the commuter rail service.
"This takes us from wondering whether we have a partner with Burlington Northern to having a partner with Burlington Northern and we'll work together together now to make commuter rail a reality in that corridor," McFarlin says.
There are plenty of sticking points that had to be negotiated. The rail line from Big Lake to Minneapolis is busy and profitable for BNSF. The company runs nearly 50 trains on the tracks every day carrying a wide range of cargo, and doesn't want to jeopardize its freight business. Also, BNSF had commuter rail advocates biting their nails that the company would seek high track leasing fees that could kill the project.
This takes us from wondering whether we have a partner with Burlington Northern to having a partner.Bob McFarlin, Minnesota Department of Transportation
But now state officials are smiling over the agreement. Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, says the deal is a major milestone, and opens the door to seeking key federal matching dollars at a time when state funding for the project is nearly in place.
"That state payment comes from the overall Northstar commuter project budget, which is largely through the bonding request which was approved by the legislature last year. The additional $60 million that the governor has recommended, and which we hope to get in this year's bonding bill, is still being negotiated," McClung says.
If lawmakers approve the $60 million this year, nearly all the state money would be in hand. But a key lawmaker wants to give the deal a close look. Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, chair of the powerful Capital Investment Committee, says the governor's $60 million bonding request for the Northstar project appears to have support in both the Senate and the House.
However, Langseth says he wants to see the track easement details.
"If this is a go-ahead for it, then of course we have the $60 million for it in our bill and the House appears willing to go along with that $60 million. So to the extent that moves it along, that's fine. But I'd have to know a little more about it first -- like that 'easement right' thing. I'm not sure what that means," Langseth says.
The 40-mile long Northstar Commuter Rail line price tag has increased from around $250 million to $307 million. MnDOT's Bob McFarlin says about one-third of the money will come from the state. About 16 percent will come from the 30 counties that are partners in the project.
Half the money will come from the Federal Transit Administration. McFarlin says the FTA has already given the project a green light for the critical final design phase.
"We expect in September [or] sometime in that time frame that we'll be applying to the federal government for what's called a full funding grant agreement, which is the final step in securing federal funding for the project. We expect to get that approval this year and we will be in construction in 2007," McFarlin says.
If all the agreements hold and the money appears, McFarlin says Northstar Commuter Rail service begins in 2009.
There will be five weekday morning trips from Big Lake to Minneapolis, plus one morning reverse commute from Minneapolis to Big Lake. There'll be five weekday afternoon trips from Minneapolis to Big Lake, with an afternoon reverse commute. Tickets are expected to cost somewhere between $4 and $6.