Community members and commuters advocate for Northstar Rail extension

The original plan was to have the Northstar Commuter Rail connect Minneapolis to St. Cloud, but it’s now six years after construction of the rail was finished in Big Lake and local residents are still asking for federal dollars to extend the tracks.

“Right now the city is in the advocacy role of getting the Northstar to St. Cloud through either federal or state appropriation,” said Dave Kleis, mayor of St. Cloud.

Kleis, who was an original co-author of the bill to construct the Northstar Rail, sees many benefits to connecting the states fastest growing corridor via train. The most talked about benefits include an economic boost to St. Cloud businesses and residents, and also the increasing ease to work in one place and live in the other.

“It takes people off the highway so the time they waste in traffic can be used in a productive way on the train, it’s a benefit that’s often overlooked,” Kleis said.

In order to take the Northstar Rail to Minneapolis, residents of St. Cloud must hop on a bus going from the east side of St. Cloud to Big Lake, where the rail officially begins. For everyday commuters this option is hardly as easy as a single train ride, but for students it’s been such a popular way to visit home they had to add a second bus going from Big Lake to St. Cloud on Sunday evenings.

“Freshman year, I knew people who took the train home on weekends because they didn’t have a car, but I’ve never ridden it outside of the cities, only inside,” said Cesar Yanez, a senior at SCSU who is originally from St. Paul.

Yanez himself didn’t have a car freshman year, but he was able to get rides home with friends and said the Northstar would have been an option if it was easy to ride and extended to St. Cloud.

Students who live in the cities and commute to St. Cloud daily would have the option of taking the train if it were to reach St. Cloud, but sophomore Richard Gordon sees the possibility of a reverse commute of students going towards Minneapolis.

“I would definitely use the train. I came to St. Cloud to focus on community development and environmental studies, and once I finish I’d like to go to the University of Minnesota as a graduate student to study biology,” Gordon said.

Gordon has been a strong advocate for the Northstar Rail extension and routinely rents a table in Atwood to meet and talk with students. He also spends his time at the Northstar bus station in St. Cloud to inform and ask questions of the riders.

The state was originally unable to match the federal governments grant of $124 million to make a St. Cloud-to-Minneapolis commuter train, the main reason construction of the tracks stopped in Big Lake. Mayor Kleis said the price tag would have been lower had they brought the train to St. Cloud initially, but now the best option is for citizens to lobby members of their legislature and congress for federal and state dollars.

Jill Brown, the public information consultant for the Northstar Rail, said she anticipates the extension would be paid for similar to the first phase when they used 50 percent state money and 50 percent federal. Brown also stressed that the bill to extend the rail is competing with other national transportation proposals, so to stand out they will need to show an increase in ridership along the existing trail.

Ridership did increase 4 percent during weekdays in October 2015 compared to the same time last year, and the train currently has six rides every weekday going each way with departure times ranging from 5 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. The bus system between here and Big Lake has also been growing nonstop.

The conversation of the rail extension was re-ignited in St. Cloud after the BNSF, owner of the physical tracks, added a second set a tracks between Big Lake and Becker to account for increased commercial rail use just a year ago.

Now there is such a following that the GRIP/ISAIAH Faith Organization held an event at the St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center on Nov. 12 to have members of the community and government speak to an audience about the reasons behind and importance of the rail extension.

In attendance supporting the effort was Rep. Jim Knoblach, Mayor Dave Kleis, and Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, who is also the chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.

Lenzmeier brought to light concerns of the extension as well as the positives it will bring to the area, and said through email that before a train comes to St. Cloud there will likely be an interim step with a Bus Rail Transit (BRT) System that will be an upgrade from the current bus system and could be complete and running within five years. He said a full-service train is still likely eight to 10 years out.

Transportation is a public service and many community members talked about their struggles to get to work and school because driving simply isn’t an option. Gov. Mark Dayton’s representative at the event, Adam Duininck, said those are the main purposes of transit systems, and that currently four out of five metro riders use the service to go to work or school.

A strong push from St. Cloud and surrounding area residents for the extension of the tracks has helped get this into a multi-module transportation bill that not only proposes the Northstar extension, but also brings money to upgrade roads as well. Some members of the government in support of the extension are hopeful the bill can be passes in the next legislative session.

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