MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s been 10 years since the first Northstar commuter rail trains began daily service between Minneapolis and Big Lake. On the average weekday, nearly 3,000 commuters are on the train and off the highways.

Initially the goal was to extend rail service to Rice, northwest of St. Cloud, and now promoters of that idea are once again moving ahead.

A decade since the first Northstar commuter rail trains began rolling, St. Cloud’s depot is all too quiet, except for the occasional freight train or scheduled Amtrak.

Twenty miles south, the Big Lake station is the Northstar’s final stop. Extending service to St. Cloud or beyond is a major push by the local chamber of commerce.

“Northstar would create an economic engine here that would be like no other,” Teresa Bohnen, of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “It is a lot of people that get on the bus go to Big lake and hop on that train and then reverse that coming back.”

Chamber president Bohnen says inner urban transit is key to economic growth. Helping businesses attract workers, the local university’s faculty and students. That’s why State Rep. Dan Wolgamott secured Minnesota Department of Transportation funding to study the extension.

A major challenge will be to integrate commuter rail with existing freight. Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the tracks, so starting the conversation is a solid first step, if a vision launched a decade ago is to ever be realized.

The MnDOT study should be completed in time for the next legislative session. A public hearing on the idea is set for Jan. 30 at the St. Cloud Library.

Bill Hudson

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