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Big Lake, Minn. — Is Eileen Stombaugh the leading edge of a growing number of Twin Cities area commuters? "I hate commuting," Stombaugh says.
Specifically, Stombaugh hates car commuting. She enjoys riding the bus. And very early every weekday morning she drives to Elk River from her home near Big Lake to catch the Northstar commuter bus service. She rides for up to an hour one way to get to her job in Minneapolis. The roundtrip costs about $7 and Stombaugh says she'd happily pay more.
"That's a small issue for me. The driving is a big issue for me. I hate the stress of driving, and I hate driving at the end of a busy day -- you're tired, and you're out there in traffic," she says.
But unless additional money is found, the Northstar commuter bus service ends this fall. It's a federal demonstration project and the initial funding dried up last year. Some federal, state and local dollars were found to keep the service going a few more months.
Eileen Stombaugh supports commuter rail.
So does Big Lake Township board chairman Ewald Peterson. They both think there are plenty of people who would like an alternative to car commuting.
"It would seem clear that a lot of people are interested in using a different mode of transportation, just to get rid of the stress and the amount of time they spend on the highway," Peterson says.
I have very few people actually say, 'Well yeah, I'd use it as a commuter.' A majority of people are indicating to me that they would use it for going to Twins games, going to social activities down in the metropolitan area.
The proposed 40-mile long, $265 million Northstar commuter rail line would carry passengers on an existing set of tracks from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis.
The line these days is owned by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad. Most of the traffic, up to 45 trains a day, carries freight as far as the West Coast. There's still passenger rail service, but it's the Amtrak train which pulls through Big Lake and most other communities without stopping.
Highway 10 between Big Lake and the Twin Cities collects car drivers from a host of fast-growing northern Twin Cities suburbs. Big Lake has doubled in size in the past 10 years, from 3,500 to 7,000 people.
Some highway interchanges have been improved to help traffic flow more smoothly, but officials say there's no immediate plan to expand the four-lane roadway to accommodate growing congestion.
Supporters say commuter rail service makes sense given the anticipated population growth and the distant liklihood of highway expansion.
Big Lake city council member Jim Dickensen disagrees. He's a former supporter of commuter rail. However, lately, he says he's closer to being an opponent. He says the Northstar project won't have the desired outcome. Not enough rush hour car commuters will leave their vehicles to ride the rails.
"Would you use it as a commuter? I have very few people actually say, 'Well yeah, I'd use it as a commuter.' A majority of people are indicating to me that they would use it for going to Twins games, going to social activities down in the metropolitan area," Dickenson says. "And after hearing about that over and over and over again, I'm seeing there's a lot of support for it -- but for all the wrong reasons."
Supporters say the Northstar commuter rail project has met most of the Federal Transit Administration's requirements but one. It does not have a commitment of state money. So, by FTA standards, Northstar still has a "not recommended" designation, in the list of rail projects around the country seeking startup dollars.
Gov. Pawlenty put it in his bonding proposal. The speaker of the Republican-controlled House says he's a supporter. However, several influential House Republicans are opposed.
Northstar's future may come into focus when legislative conferees work out details of the state bonding package near the end of the legislative session.