Two GOP lawmakers want Northstar to go to St. Cloud

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The Northstar commuter rail line trains sit at the Target Field Station after traveling from Big Lake Monday, Nov. 16, 2009.

A pair of St. Cloud legislators believe they've hit on a no-cost way to extend the Northstar Commuter Rail line to reach their city.

Republicans Jim Knoblach in the House and John Pederson in the Senate are introducing legislation requiring two daily round trips between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. The commuter line opened in 2009 but doesn't go beyond Big Lake in the west. Bus service now ferries people from St. Cloud to Big Lake's station.

Knoblach said Monday that the extra 27 miles can run along existing tracks to an Amtrak station in St. Cloud. The state would have to negotiate track use with BNSF Railway. Knoblach said to keep operating costs down, the number of weekday round trip Minneapolis-to-Big Lake runs would be reduced from five to four, and there would be one fewer trip in the already reduced weekend schedule as well.

"We own the train engines. We own the train cars. We have a train station in St. Cloud," Knoblach said. "I don't think there would be any additional costs."

Knoblach said his assessment is based on doing the mileage math. According to his calculations, the addition of St. Cloud to the itinerary but the reduction in daily trips overall would mean 2,981 weekly train miles compared to 2,941 now. The bill bars the state from spending any more money than is in the current operating budget.

Their extension plan would leave out something that was originally in the Northstar plans: a station in Becker.

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The new bill has its first hearing Tuesday night before a House transportation panel.

There are other Northstar proposals in the mix. Two Democrats, Sen. Alice Johnson of Blaine and Rep. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids, are seeking $1 million in state bonding toward the line extension.

UPDATE:

Two members of Gov. Mark Dayton's administration say the Republican legislator's plan won't work.

“We share the governor’s strong support for extending Northstar to St. Cloud, which should have happened to begin with," Metropolitan Council Chair Adam Duininck and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commission Charlie Zelle  said in a joint statement.  "It’s not feasible to extend service, build additional track, serve more people, and have it cost the same as it does today. It is unlikely that BNSF railroad would allow the state to operate on its track at no additional cost. Any proposal to extend Northstar will take real funding solutions.”