A new train station could be in Minneapolis' future

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Proposed train station
The proposed train station would combine the Northstar commuter rail stop in the foreground with the Hiawatha light rail stop at the new Twins ballpark in anticipation of the expected construction of the Central Corridor line which will also terminate at the ballpark.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

We're a long way past the golden era of passenger trains in this country. Even so, there's a plan taking shape in Minneapolis for a new train station sometime in the near future.

It's still just an idea and it doesn't look anything like the old days when Minneapolis was a railroad center with cathedral-like passenger rail depots. However, the prospect of a new station marks a historic change for the city

Hennepin County's Chuck Ballantine stood in the still under construction Twins ballpark in Minneapolis' warehouse district. He's about five stories up overlooking the surface parking lot across the street.

Ballantine, on loan from Hennepin County to the ball park authority, the group that owns the new Twins stadium, was describing what might in a few years be a new rail station next door when, of all things, a passenger train pulls by.

"That's a test, that's a Northstar test, they're running some passenger cars," Ballantine said.

It's a Northstar commuter rail practice run and a preview of things to come.

"There's going to be a place where you can take one train, make a quick transfer and you're off on another train."

Starting this fall, two passenger rail services - Northstar commuter and the Hiawatha light rail - will meet here, next to the new Twins ball park.

Hennepin County commissioner Peter McLaughlin said there'll be more.

"There will be a hub," he said. "There's going to be a place where you can take one train, make a quick transfer and you're off on another train."

With each passing month it's more likely the Central Corridor light rail from St. Paul and the southwest corridor light rail service from Eden Prairie will be built.

Both lines will meet near the ball park, making four lines come together.

Even with just the two trains this fall there'll be thousands of commuters and visitors making connections.

St. Paul and Pacific Railroad depot
St. Paul and Pacific Railroad depot, Washington Avenue and North Fourth Avenue, Minneapolis.
Photo Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Next season, on Twins home game days, that number grows as thousands more passengers riding Hiawatha and Northstar will head for the new ball park.

The prospect puts a gleam in the eye of the downtown pub owners and lifts the hopes of housing developers in Minneapolis warehouse district.

Something more than a niggling detail, McLaughlin notes, is the course of the country's fortunes.

"If the economy comes back and investments are being made in both office and in housing, this is going to be a prime area," McLaughlin said.

Prime does not fit the neighborhood's history or geography.

Chuck Ballantine said the soil is squishy and not the best for building.

White settlement turned this area of Minneapolis into the city's backyard with a lot of warehouses and a hub where trains delivered goods.

"Tractors and harvesting equipment and wagons and the rest of the kind of stuff and spare parts, and fresh produce came into the area for distribution in the Upper Midwest," Ballantine said. "It was a huge rail yard area."

There's no plan at the moment for a passenger station here on the scale of Grand Central in New York, Union in St. Louis or even the old historic depot in Lowertown St. Paul. Maybe just some covered waiting areas at first.

But there are drawings for a fancier structure, and there's a price tag down the road of as much as $130 million.

A passenger rail nexus, Minneapolis City Council member Robert Lilligren said, is a good fit with the city's plans.

Lilligren and others led the way to convert two busy downtown city streets - Marquette and Second avenues - to bus ways. That's folded into a much broader city plan that encourages biking and walking.

Add passenger rail, Lilligren said, and the mix will eventually change how downtown looks and smells.

"Fewer cars on the street, having less congestion, less air pollution fewer green house gases, using less downtown real estate to park cars and turning that over to higher and better uses," Lilligren said.

It took a couple of generations for gasoline-powered vehicles to dominate and influence how Minneapolis looks. Transit options are already changing commuting and travel habits.

It remains to be seen how the economy and the addition of more transit will affect the city.