WJON In-Depth: All Aboard! Rolling St. Cloud’s Northstar Extension Back on Track [VIDEO]
BIG LAKE -- Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the thought of bringing the Northstar Rail from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud has been a goal for residents. However since 2009, that goal has become wishful thinking.
For the past several years there has been an ongoing debate among state lawmakers on this issue. Republican State Representative Jim Knoblach says locally there's been a strong push, but concerns over funding and ridership leaves many doubters at the state level.
"There is a certain jaded feeling among a lot of state lawmakers in the Twin Cities that the Northstar is a money loser and we shouldn't pour more money into it."
But is this wishful thinking enough to finally make it reality? Statistically, Knoblach says the Northstar has never reached the ridership numbers it once projected.
But that doesn't mean the Northstar is a failure. Metro Bus spokesman Tom Cruikshank says on their end they have seen an increase in ridership on their Northstar Link Shuttle and says rail line service has increased too..
"We're averaging about 150 riders a day. Train ridership has been good. This past year Metro Transit is saying Northstar is doing very good."
However ridership isn't the only factor that indicates St. Cloud is ready for the rail extension. St. Cloud State University Economics Professor King Banaian says there is a strong trend of Central Minnesota residents wanting to travel to the Twin Cities.
"The total number of miles being traveled on I-94 has gone up, the numbers on U.S. Highway 10 has been about constant."
So with these upward trends and demands, what's causing the hold-up to a St. Cloud extension? One reason Banaian says, St. Cloud just doesn't have many workers traveling to the cities.
"We used to have about 7000 workers living in Stearns and Benton County driving to the Twin Cities to go to work. That number is now down to about 5700."
And of course there is the issue of commuting back to Big Lake.
"Most of the trains are going in one direction taking people to the Twin Cities. If there were an expansion having people coming back from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud, that would actually have a significant impact on what's a very tight labor market."
But in order to see phase 2 of the project get off the ground, MnDot spokesperson Ryan Wilson says it's going to take a total team effort. Everything from committee organizations, funding options and a rail study.
"It's been several years since any work has been done on Northstar phase 2. So that study would be an important step to analyze where the project is at and what's the next step."
Earlier this year Governor Mark Dayton proposed $3-million to invest in a six-month study to look over engineering costs, project ridership, and determine total cost of extending services, however state lawmakers turned it down.
Knoblach and Wilson agree says if the Northstar is to come to St. Cloud, it may require a partnership through the BNSF railroad.
"Some of the round trips they have coming out of Big Lake really aren't used very much and if we can train off those rights with the extension to St. Cloud I think that would be more economical," says Knoblach.
"That negotiation and discussion with them would be vital to the extension's success," says Wilson
While the dream still waits to become reality there is mutual agreement St. Cloud needs to be the endpoint of the Northstar rail.
"We need to show people there is enough demand on this end of the corridor to support the train from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities and bring that reverse commute train. We have a lot of workers on the Highway 10 corridor that come this way for work." says Cruikshank.
Banaian says the extension would also bring an uptick in economic status through Central Minnesota.
"Places like Clear Lake, Monticello, Becker, Elk River would start to see rapid increases in population if the train was more of an option.
So while the game of cat and mouse continues at the state level, we here in St. Cloud continue to operate as if it's going to happen and show St. Cloud is ready to ride the rails.