ST. CLOUD -- Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle supports extending the Northstar Commuter Rail Line to St. Cloud but, he doesn't agree with a St. Cloud lawmaker's plan on how to accomplish it.

State Representative Jim Knoblach has a bill to extend the rail line but prohibits state money from being used to accomplish it.

Among Knoblach's reasons, are that by reducing the number of daily trips, the increased miles to bring the train to St. Cloud would be a "wash".  He adds that ridership numbers will go up, bringing in more revenue.

The Republican lawmaker also feels the tracks could be used at no cost. Zelle says that's just not the case.  He says state negotiators who have worked with BNSF indicate the rail line would require lease payments.  Other infrastructure improvements also would likely be required like updating the Amtrak Station in St. Cloud and improving rail crossings along the route.

Zelle says if the bill passes and state funding is prohibited, it would put an unfunded mandate on St. Cloud taxpayers. He says if the rail line is going to be extended, the state needs to help fund it.  Knoblach disagrees and says he wouldn't support an amendment to the bill allowing state money for funding.

Cost projections remain fluid. Knoblach says he received a fiscal projection this week that the cost could be as low as $22,000,000.  Original estimates were that it could cost more than $150,000,000 to extend the rail line.  He says there shouldn't be any costs because there is an existing rail line, a functional train station in St. Cloud, and ample seat availability.  He feels the state can renegotiate the track easement with BNSF and whether any crossing upgrades are needed.

Knoblach says comments by Zelle and Governor Mark Dayton that they support the extension of Northstar are disingenuous because they have not offered a plan, requested it in the transportation bill, or put it in the governor's bonding proposal.


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