The first two coach cars for the Northstar Commuter Rail line have arrived in central Minnesota, putting the project one step closer to its launch in November.
Each of the passenger cars will seat up to 145 people, with room for standing and storage for bicycles and luggage. Within a few weeks, people will notice trains running on tracks between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, as Metro Transit conducts test runs.
Felix Schmiesing, a Sherburne County Commissioner, is chair of the second phase of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, which aims to expand the line to St. Cloud.
Schmiesing says if Northstar can get a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, it can expand to St. Cloud. The money, part of the federal stimulus package, would cover about 80 percent of the expansion costs. Schmiesing says the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Northstar officials plan to apply for the grant by early fall.
"And it's not an earmark. It's a grant opportunity," he said. "And we're hoping our congresswoman would take a look at this and give us the green light on it."
Schmiesing is referring to Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Most of the Northstar Commuter Rail line runs through her Sixth district. Bachmann wasn't available for an interview, but she responded in writing to questions for this story.
Bachmann opposes including federal funding to expand the line to St. Cloud in appropriations bill, because Northstar, in her words, is "not on any of the official lists of priority projects." She has opposed earmarks in the past, but she did send a letter encouraging the Federal Railroad Administration to consider MnDOT's grant application for Northstar.
President Obama has set aside $8 billion from the economic stimulus package for high-speed passenger rail systems. Schmiesing says Northstar can meet the grant criteria as an intercity rail project, because it has the potential to connect two metropolitan areas, St. Cloud and Minneapolis.
"We're very hopeful," Schmiesing said. "Right now we have a bit of a perfect storm with the new stimulus money and with the bipartisan support that we're receiving from the governor and from the Democratic administration in Washington."
Schmiesing says the project can be completed faster than any other rail project in the state. He says a lot of the planning and environmental work has already been done, and the project got an unexpected boost during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to St. Cloud in March.
"It was a question that came from the audience and the response from the crowd kind of said it all," Schmiesing said.
Biden said the federal government ought to be able to provide money for the project, and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar has included $6 million to expand Northstar to St. Cloud in a Senate appropriations bill for next year.
The Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill also includes $400,000 for Northstar buses to St. Cloud and $1 million for a Northstar locomotive.
Northstar continues to receive support from the vice president, who has called Governor Pawlenty to talk about how to make the expansion happen.
Schmiesing says St. Cloud Metro Transit will soon begin constructing a park-and-ride lot in southeast St. Cloud, where buses will take passengers from St. Cloud to Big Lake starting in November.
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