Northstar Rail makes sense all around


A recent caller to The Mark Heaney radio talk show complained about the “waste” of public funds on the Northstar commuter rail line. She said the money should have gone to building more lanes on Hwy. 10, which follows much of the same route.

Let’s take a closer look at that assertion, starting with the construction and startup costs of either option along the fast-growing 40-mile corridor from Big Lake to Minneapolis:

* One extra lane in each direction on Hwys. 10 and Interstate 35W: $2.2 billion.

* Northstar: $320 million.

OK, that’s a 7-to-1 win for taxpayers with the Northstar option. The highway expansion estimate comes from a 2005 study by Anoka County officials; some road construction materials costs have doubled since then. The Northstar price tag is current.

Opinion: Northstar Rail makes sense all around

During rush hours, Northstar trains are projected to carry just over two-thirds the number of passengers that extra highway lanes would accommodate. Northstar ridership, however, could increase in response to demand by adding passenger cars to the trains or scheduling more runs. The capacity of a highway lane is fixed forever.

To be sure, highways cost a lot less than transit to operate, although maintenance on the extra lanes would run about $500,000 a year. So the Anoka County people figured that in and then calculated the cost of both modes over 40 years, minus the fares paid by Northstar riders. Updating the figures for the rail line’s current costs, here’s how it works out per rush-hour trip:

* Hwys. 10 and 35W: $14.72.

* Northstar: $4.38.

That’s a 70 percent smart-shopper discount for the public. The actual savings is probably more because the Anoka County study didn’t estimate the cost of buying right-of-way for new highway lanes. Northstar’s costs include payments to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for running on its existing tracks. A 1998 report to the Federal Transit Administration said land acquisition costs would render Hwys. 10 and 35W expansion option infeasible.

Meanwhile, the highway route has become increasingly clogged. Jon Olson, Anoka County’s manager of public services, said there is no chance of new federal funding for Hwy. 10 until at least 2025.

State and county officials talked recently about widening a 2-mile stretch of Hwy. 10 in Coon Rapids by squeezing extra lanes into existing right-of-way. The state had been offering to put up $9 million for the $12 million project, provided the county loaned the state the remaining $3 million. Now, however, the state says it sees no way to pay off the loan, Olson said.

That means, if the project is to go forward, perhaps by 2010, Anoka County property taxpayers will have to bear a quarter of the cost.

Meanwhile, $157 million from Washington is assured for the Northstar and the first trains are expected to run in late 2009.