It has not been an entirely smooth ride for the Northstar commuter rail project. Rising prices for construction materials and other costs added $30 million to the pricetag.
The project is now estimated at about $320 million. That figure doesn't include annual operating costs, which will be known once the trains begin service in late 2009.
Political spats among state elected officials over bonding and transportation bills also threatened Northstar's finances over the past decade. The state-level funding kerfuffles prompted county leaders to take matters into their own hands.
At a packed ceremony Tuesday in the Anoka County courthouse lobby in downtown Anoka, there were smiles and handshakes all around as officials from all levels of government congratulated themselves for Northstar's successful journey so far.
However, Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhardt reminded listeners that Anoka, Sherburne and Hennepin counties put more than $50 million on the table to keep the project alive, while state elected officials tried to work out their funding feuds.
"Thanks to the confidence of local governments, we've upfronted some of the money. We'll now proceed with the purchase of locomotives and cars, and then next spring we'll be building stations," Erhardt said.
There have been compromises all along the way. An early Northstar commuter rail plan had trains running from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. But the route was shortened to end at Big Lake. Along the way a major station stop at Fridley was also eliminated. Northstar boosters promise they're continuing to look at ways to extend the line to St. Cloud and restore the Fridley station.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has emerged as an ally of Northstar, which serves an area of the northwest Twin Cities suburbs that over the years has supplied a good measure of Republican votes. Pawlenty says both car and train commuters will benefit from the service.
"We're going to have decreased congestion with -- at peaks, more than a lane and half of traffic, or the equivalent of it, being removed from the freeways," said Pawlenty. "It's going to be a reliable form of transportation regardless of the weather or other circumstances. You're going to get a reliable commute of just over 40 minutes, if you take it all the way from Big Lake to Minneapolis or in the reverse."
The arrival of the $157 million in federal dollars for the Northstar project was expected by some, who assumed that the influence of Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., the chair of the House Transportation Committee, would once again work to the state's advantage as it has in many other transportation projects.
However, federal officials are making it clear to Minnesota leaders that competition from other states for scarce federal transit dollars is high, and rising. Part of the reason is a growing number of other states have voted to tax themselves to create a dedicated source of funding for transit.
“Frankly, there are a lot of people around here who aren't willing to give up their vehicles and take the public transportation.”Marty Raymond of Elk River, rail proponent
Advocates of the proposed $1 billion Central Corridor light rail project along University Ave. between St. Paul and Minneapolis are worried the absence of a stable source of state transit funding gives other states with pots of money the advantage.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin says Federal Transit Administration officials recently restated their concern about Minnesota's system of patching together funding from various sources for transit projects.
"The FTA people were very clear with our staff, jerry-rigging the system is not how you do it. You have a funding mechanism, a clear path, a clear vision," said McLaughlin. "We've had a clear vision for awhile, but we've not had the funding mechanism here in this metropolitan area. And that's what this next legislative session needs to pass and the governor needs to sign."
The funding mechanism favored in some other states, but not in Minnesota so far, is a metropolitan or regional or county-by-county sales tax option.
Marty Raymond is a transit proponent who says she'll happily pay more taxes for trains and buses. However, the retired IT specialist who lives in Elk River, not far from the Northstar commuter rail line, says she knows from conversations that many of her neighbors do not favor higher taxes.
"We are really being hit with property taxes and other taxes. And frankly, there are a lot of people around here who aren't willing to give up their vehicles and take the public transportation, so they would fight it, I think," said Raymond.
Polling results show overwhelming support for the Northstar project. However, taxpayers and their elected officials appear to be sharply divided on how or even if to raise money for additional Twin Cities transit projects.