Anoka County pulls plug on commuter rail expansion

Anoka County commissioners today voted 4-to-3 to pull out of the Northern Lights Express project, which sought to bring passenger rail service from Minneapolis (via Coon Rapids) to Duluth, an idea which is pretty well dead without Anoka County’s support, its commissioner says.

“We are an integral part of the completion of that line; us pulling out I think will, ultimately, kill it,” Commissioner Matt Look, chair of the county’s regional rail authority, told the Pioneer Press.

Look told the paper he’s worried about the amount of money Anoka County would need to hand over for the $1 billion project. It’s expected to be about $10 million, although he thinks it could be as much as $100 million.

His concerns echo those voiced by taxpayers in counties other than Anoka, who — in March 2008 – ponied up an additional sales tax beyond the gas tax increase approved by the Legislature. Most Much of the money in transit-poor counties like Washington County was diverted to places where there were mass transit projects on the table — Hennepin and Anoka, with projects like Anoka County’s Northstar commuter rail project (update: And Ramsey, of course, with the Central Corridor).

But that line has been a disappointment from the start. Its projected ridership is down, and Metro Transit is reducing fares to try to get people out of their cars and onto the train.

Conceptually, Northstar was supposed to run from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, but there wasn’t enough money to extend the line past Big Lake. And the reality is: Not many people — or at least enough people — want to go to Big Lake.

By “pooling” its sales tax money from other counties, Anoka County unloaded the Northstar project from its property tax payers. Anoka County’s pullout from another mass transportation project exposes the reality of such dependency in transit planning: You can’t always trust depend on your partners to reciprocate when it’s your turn.

Update 2:15 p.m. 6/14/12 – Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, mentioned above, called to say the original post contained “a significant failure to relay correct information.” He indicated that this is passenger rail, rather than commuter rail. In rereading the post together, it was clear that he objected to the last paragraph, which he believes said his board could not be trusted.

That’s not what I wrote and while I can’t defend words I didn’t write, I can further explain the ones I did. One of the funding mechanisms in building a mass transit system for Minnesota was an increased sales tax in certain counties; five of the metro counties voted to impose the sales tax, two did not — the goal was an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state. The Northern Lights project is not funded by that tax, and I regret the impression that it was.

In the buildout of transportation solutions, “partners” — counties, in some cases — are obliged to subsidize transportation projects in other counties. Those projects may be under the control of any number of agencies and boards, several of whom may have been created after the vote to increase the sales tax. (Note: NLX funding presently comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, bonding money from MnDOT, Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration, and local cities and counties.)

Why did I bring up the sales tax increase in five counties if the money doesn’t go for Northern Lights? Because an overall vision for a mass transportation infrastructure in the state necessarily comes back to the contentious gas-tax legislation. It’s the last time a public engaged itself in the question of “what’s my role in developing a transportation infrastructure that may primarily benefit someone else?” (For the record, the previous contentious debate was just a few years earlier when voters approved a constitutional amendment dedicating a percentage of the motor vehicle sales tax to transit projects.)

As the link above shows, when Anoka County approved an increase in the sales tax for transit, it did so to get the Northstar rail project off the property tax, and at least one commissioner — the late Scott LeDoux — did so with the idea that outsiders (visitors to the National Sports Center in Blaine) would shoulder some of the burden for a project that benefited primarily Anoka County residents. It’s under that vision for the responsibility for paying for transportation projects, that I invoked the sales tax increase in the overall transportation system funding question. It renews the same question last asked during that contentious debate.

The debate in several counties when the expanded sales tax and gas tax increase was pitched did not center around the role of one board or another board, or even one project or another project, it centered on a single question: What do we get out of this?

The same perspective that Commissioner Look provides in deciding not to put more money into passenger rail, sounds pretty familiar to the refrain of those who didn’t benefit from light-rail asking why they should pay for Minneapolis or St. Paul’s exploits in that arena. The commissioner’s question isn’t unreasonable now; it wasn’t an unreasonable question then. What’s the answer?

The structure of financing for many transportation projects comes under the direction of several boards, agencies, and partners. There is no guarantee that any one of them will agree with any other board, agency or partner on any component of that buildout, when it comes time to deliver on a specific mass transportation project. So while a transit-poor county, like Washington County, used as an example above, has agreed to be part of the metro-wide transit solution, it did so very much on faith.

Some people are disappointed by the decision in Anoka County. Some people aren’t. It doesn’t matter to me what side of that people are on. My observation is simply that articles of faith in matters of mass transportation projects in Minnesota sometimes go unrewarded. Anoka County isn’t obligated to help with a project that may be of benefit to, say, St. Louis County, just because it got some help easing a taxpayer burden for Northstar from some outsiders. And if you’re thinking about an overall transportation system for Minnesota, it would be a mistake to think it does.

Commissioner Look’s concerns are principled, which is why I’ve asked him to write an addition to this post which states his position. He has declined to do so at this time.

Update 2:46 p.m. 6/15 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has submitted this response:

This blog post seems to overlook the willingness and leadership of five counties to help create a stronger transportation system in the metro area. The fact is that every investment decision regarding the five-county sales tax has been a unanimous decision of the Counties Transit Improvement Board. These decisions supported a project that was consistent with the Metro Council’s transportation plan for the region. So I’d like to address the specific concerns of what has been written in Tuesday’s blog post and Thursday’s update.

· Blog Post: “One of the funding mechanisms in building a mass transit system for Minnesota was an increased sales tax in certain counties; five of the metro counties voted to impose the sales tax, two did not — the goal was an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state. The Northern Lights project is not funded by that tax, and I regret the impression that it was.”

Fact: The goal of the five-county sales tax was not “an overall buildout of transit solutions in the state.” It was to expand high level transit in the participating five counties. That’s why bringing the sales tax into a discussion of NLX is grossly misleading.

· Blog Post: “So while a transit-poor county, like Washington County, used as an example above, has agreed to be part of the metro-wide transit solution, it did so very much on faith.”

Fact: CTIB has guaranteed Washington County an annual grant of 3% of all the revenues generated by the five-county sales tax. The guaranteed annual grant is more than half the money generated in Washington County (less than 6% of the five-county sales tax is generated in Washington County).

· Blog Post: “By “pooling” its sales tax money from other counties, Anoka County unloaded the Northstar project from its property tax payers. Anoka County’s pullout from another mass transportation project exposes the reality of such dependency in transit planning: You can’t always trust depend on your partners to reciprocate when it’s your turn.”

Fact: None of the original capital investment for Northstar came from the five-county sales tax. CTIB funds have been used for the Fridley and Ramsey Stations, added or being added after the counties’ portion of the original capital costs have been paid using property tax dollars. The five counties are now paying for 50% of the operating costs of Northstar. That responsibility has been “unloaded,” but not all of the investment for Northstar.

· Blog Post: “Most Much of the money in transit-poor counties like Washington County was diverted to places where there were mass transit projects on the table — Hennepin and Anoka, with projects like Anoka County’s Northstar commuter rail project (update: And Ramsey, of course, with the Central Corridor).”

Fact: Even the corrected statement is misleading. Cedar Avenue busway, a project of Dakota County, has also received significant funding from the five-count sales tax. So, that means that Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey, and Dakota, have received significant funding. That would be four of the five counties. And Washington County has not only received a guarantee of receiving more than half it contributions, it also was permitted to use the funds for planning and subsidization of express busses, something only projects in Washington County are permitted to do. This was designed specifically to respond to the fact that Washington County didn’t have projects that were as ready to go as other counties.

Is there a risk in joint multi-county efforts? Yes, but these five counties have seen fit to work together and invest almost a half a billion dollars in transit expansion. In the process, working together, they have helped bring over half a billion dollars in federal investment into the region, investment that would otherwise have gone to other regions with which we compete each and every day.

The issues associated with passenger rail are different. Moreover, the system is under the leadership of MNDOT, not Met Council. The mixing of the two systems, as this articles does, is terribly confusing at best.

  • Jeb

    There’s a lot of issues with the Northstar line that are dooming it until they get fixed.

    1. It doesn’t go to St. Cloud. Seriously? That’s where a lot of the traffic is.

    2. It’s infrequent. Realistically, it’s not terribly useful unless I’m going into Minneapolis to work normal business hours and don’t have to worry about having to work overtime. Or to go to a Twins game. It’s nearly impossible to use it for anything else, especially if you’re planning on staying in the Cities past 6 PM.

    3. There’s no passes you can buy, except for the family pass on weekends and for Twins games. I can’t buy a day pass that would allow me unlimited Northstar riding, along with unlimited light rail/bus usage, nor is there a weekly or monthly pass like there are for other services. Hopefully the change down to $3 for Fridley and Anoka means that people to those destinations can use the monthly passes that have the $3 fare level.

  • Robert Moffitt

    “Most of the money in transit-poor counties like Washington County was diverted to places like Hennepin and Anoka, and projects like Anoka County’s Northstar commuter rail project.”

    Sorry, Woodbury. No buses or rail for you.

    Unlike light rail, the Northstar line has to share rail space and time with freight trains. That’s why the schedule is so limited.

    Considering how conservative (read train-haters) the Anoka County Board has become, I’m not surprised.

  • matt

    There is no mass transit culture in Minnesota. If the culture did exist it could survive down economic times, it could survive partisanship, it could survive. We have a Viking culture, we have a highway culture, we have a hunting culture,etc. Those touchstones get higher support here than they would in other states/regions.

    No mass transit culture = hard to build mass transit. It is hard to fathom that our current experiments will be enough to foster that culture in the near future. Want to build the culture? Refuse to add another lane to urban highway system – ever. Refuse to subsidize urban parking – ever. Get rid of parking lot requirements in the suburbs. The culture can flourish rather quickly when mass transit becomes the easier option.

  • Jim Bendtsen

    I am HAPPY. I am THRILLED. I am ECSTATIC. The “casino train” has been killed. The HUGE WASTE of over a BILLION dollars has been stopped hopefully, forever. Thank GOD for the intelligent, rational, conservative majority on the Anoka County Board. They did a great thing today and I am very grateful for all of them. Now, all of us who value stopping waste, need to OUST Dinosaur Dan Erhart, who has ALWAYS voted for more spending and NEVER for any reduction in any budget.

  • Bob Collins

    // Considering how conservative (read train-haters) the Anoka County Board has become, I’m not surprised.

    I believe that all of the “no” votes today were “yes” votes when it came time to tacking on the sales tax increase in 2008. Same people, I believe with a few exceptions.

  • George

    Compared to Europe, and the East Coast of this country, where commuter trains are plentiful and wonderful to ride, we in the Midwest are still back living in the stone age, and is is mostly because of the Neanderthals that cannot even figure how to start a fire yet!

  • George

    Compared to Europe, and the East Coast of this country, where commuter trains are plentiful and wonderful to ride, we in the Midwest are still back living in the stone age, and is is mostly because of the Neanderthals that cannot even figure how to start a fire yet!

  • George

    Compared to Europe, and the East Coast of this country, where commuter trains are plentiful and wonderful to ride, we in the Midwest are still back living in the stone age, and is is mostly because of the Neanderthals that cannot even figure how to start a fire yet!

  • Kipling Thacker

    If you use Britain as a surrogate for Europe, consider that it has a population density of slightly more than ten times the population density of MN. That makes it hard to justify the investment in rail in MN, given the difficulty that Britain has running trains without subsidy. In addition, let’s assume that the cost is $1 billion and the state could borrow that money at no interest, then the yearly capital cost is $33 million per year over the life of a 30 year bond. If you assume that there were no operating costs you could GIVE 500,000 people a year a round trip ticket from Mpls. to Duluth on Jefferson lines. If you add in the operating costs, you could give a lot more people that free ticket. I suspect the Anoka county commissioners did the math and it doesn’t work.

  • JackU

    A couple of comments/questions:

    For those who would simply put people on buses: If the goal is to move people into and around a metropolitan area with an already overloaded highway system, how is using buses helping the situation when they take up space on said highway system?

    For George: The last time I checked Chicago is in the Midwest. Rail service around Chicago (Metra commuter rail and Amtrak’s Illinois Service) is one of the best rail service areas in the country. Mostly because in 1970s it was decided that Chicago would remain the nations rail hub.

  • Tom K

    Re: Kipling Thacker’s post

    More commissioners and politicians need to do the math on this and other projects.

  • Kiko

    Kudos to the Anoka County Commissioners who had the guts to vote this fantasy project down. It is very important that the citizens of this county make sure these incumbents get reelected this year. Do not allow the Rinos running against these fiscally responsible individuals get elected. Do not believe the lies, and deceptive facts that will be spread throughtout the media outlets fool you into thinking they are a better choice.

    Our County Commissioners finally have a majority that actually puts the welfare of the citizens of this county first rather than the pocket padding special interest groups.

    Now if we can just get a majority of the elected officials at the state level to show a backbone we can limit the flow of spending there as well.

  • Chad Q

    Shut down all mass transit except for buses and then raise the fares on buses to make them profitable. The tin can running down Hiawatha does nothing to eliminate traffic and in fact makes it worse. The Northstar is a bust and wouldn’t have a rider if not for the MN Twins. The Central Corridor disaster is not going to solve one problem and cost tax payers over $1 billion. All those systems cost million upon millions to operate and run at a deficit each and every year. We are not Chicago or the east coast so lets stop blowing money on worthless projects and put it into our road system that actually moves people and goods.

  • Jim Bendtsen

    Bob Collins’ recollection is VERY faulty. The YES votes on the money wasting TRAIN now were the same people who voted YES on the misguided SALES TAX in 2008. Matt Look and Andy Westerberg were not on the board in 2008. Lang, Kordiak, Dinosaur Dan Erhart, LeDoux and Berg voted yes for the transit tax. West and Sivarajah voted no. By the way Mr. Collins, this took about 3 min. to find.

  • Disco

    Although I am pro-rail, I always thought a train to Duluth was a stupid idea. It just isn’t a destination compatible with rail. Let’s put money into rail projects that will reduce congestion in the Twin Cities. Forget these idiotic outstate rail projects.

  • Matt B

    I am a HUGE supporter and promoter of increased public transit, but this NLX to Duluth is really, really stupid. It’s kind of sad that it has gotten this far along in the first place. I don’t usually have nice things to say about Anoka County, but in this case, THANK YOU!! Now let’s get back to building out light rail and expanding bus service in the metro area before we EVER talk about NLX again. I really like Peter McLaughlin and thank him for his leadership on transit, but this train to Duluth fantasy really needs to go away. Let’s revisit the idea again in 20-30 years. In the meantime, let’s spend our extremely limited transit dollars on getting people to work and school.