Northstar train extension likely derailed by COVID budget woes

The last time cheerleaders for the Northstar commuter train made a move to extend the massively subsidized line beyond Big Lake to St. Cloud, the 2008 Great Recession doomed their pet project.

Taxpayers can only hope the new state budget realities caused by COVID-19 lead to the same result as special interest groups unveil the first big study in years proposing to extend both the line and the financial burden on Minnesotans, who already subsidize roughly 80 percent of the cost of each Northstar passenger’s ticket, around $20 per ride.

Moreover, the construction costs associated with building out the line would be up to a quarter-billion dollars, according to the St. Cloud Times.

It may cost between $36 million and $257 million to extend the Northstar commuter train line to St. Cloud, according to a new report by the Department of Transportation.

The route runs between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Some lawmakers, businesses, faith leaders, unions and other St. Cloud groups have pushed to extend the route to St. Cloud.

A new study came out in late July that looks at four options for extending the route. The report said extending it will take from five to seven years depending on which of four options might be selected.

The $650,000 report fails to mention that the current Northstar line has fallen far short of reaching the original ridership projections of 3,400 trips per weekday, averaging only about 2,500 passengers in a decade of operation. In fact, ridership declined by two percent in 2019, falling to 768,000 passengers.

But the 29-page document did offer an eye-opening disclaimer buried well inside the report.

The analysis described above is limited to operational feasibility and does not address ridership forecasts, revenue projections, cost‐effectiveness evaluation, governance, funding, or other analyses that may be necessary to evaluate the appropriateness of proceeding with the Northstar extension project. Once a decision is made to proceed with implementation and prior to the commencement of extended Northstar train service to St. Cloud, additional actions would need to be undertaken

Still, the MnDOT report perpetuates the fantasy that if they can find the means to build it, passengers will come.  Yet, local elected officials appear more tuned in to the budget challenges at the State Capitol that threaten to derail far more worthy proposals.

“We’re closer to getting Northstar to St. Cloud than we’ve ever been before,” said Rep. Dan Wolgamott, R-St. Cloud, who championed the assessment. “Obviously, a lot has changed in the world since we got working on this.”

While Wolgamott — along with other lawmakers — is now focused on the public health and economic crisis tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, the information in the report will remain useful for years to come, he said.