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Funding flap at center of decision to suspend Northstar service for Twins games

6 April 2022

Northstar trains will not run for Minnesota Twins games this year, and that has elevated a contentious spat between Anoka County and Metro Transit with both blaming the other for cutting the popular service.

Metro Transit says it can’t afford to run special gameday trains without receiving money expected from Anoka County to operate the commuter rail line from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis and Target Field. The line includes stops in the Anoka County cities of Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley.

But County Board Chair Scott Schulte said the decision to pull the plug on the service rests solely with the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit and decides when trains will run and for what purpose.

“It has become political,” Schulte said.

Anoka County is one of five funding sources that cover Northstar’s costs. In 2018, the county signed a five-year agreement to cover 34% of Northstar’s costs through the end of this year, Metro Transit said.

Under the terms, which Metro Transit says remain in effect, the county owes just over $2 million for the last six months of 2020, $2 million for all of 2021 and $3.9 million for this year, according to figures provided by the transit agency.

Metro Transit has received payment from every funding partner except Anoka County, the transit agency said. Sherburne and Hennepin counties, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have paid in full.

Anoka County said it was overbilled by $750,000 in 2020 and 2021 because Metro Transit cut Northstar operations by 70% when ridership plunged during the pandemic as weekend runs and service to Twin games were halted.

Two inbound and two outbound trains now run weekdays, down from four in each direction before the pandemic. Twins, Vikings and weekend trains have been scuttled, too, yet the Met Council “is still demanding full funding,” Schulte said.

The county, however, has not signed yearly operating agreements for either 2021 or 2022. The yearly agreements have different amounts of money tied to them. With so many fewer trains running, the county in 2020 asked the Met Council reduce its bill.

“We continue to ask them to meet with us to negotiate a fair agreement,” Schulte said. “We look forward to having more meetings” with the Met Council and its chairman, Charlie Zelle.

The county received those revised numbers last week and is reviewing them. Even when payment is made, Metro Transit’s service plan does not include weekend service or trains for Twins games, and the county has no decision-making authority about Northstar operations, a county spokesman said.

“Our main priority remains providing Northstar commuters more daily options to use this service to get to and from their jobs, which is the primary purpose for the train,” the spokesman said.

Metro Transit provided 81,561 rides on Northstar trains for Twins games in 2019, the last year without COVID-19 attendance restrictions for all or part of the season. The service operated for 64 of the team’s home games that year but did not operate in 2020 or 2021.

“Metro Transit would like to be able to provide more Northstar service, including to Twins games, but cannot prudently take on additional costs of doing so without receipt of operating funds expected from Anoka County,” the transit agency said in a statement.

“The Metropolitan Council continues to work with Anoka County regarding Northstar service levels and the county’s funding commitment.”

Suspending trains for Twins games and other special events comes as talk has resurfaced about mothballing the 41-mile rail line and replacing the service with buses.

Twins fan John Brillhart of Fridley is a season ticket holder and with his wife and three boys frequently takes the Northstar to Target Field. He said the train is popular and hopes service can be reinstated.

“That is when they are packed,” Brillhart said.

Until then, for those going to the games, “it’s simple, make alternative plans,’ said Matt Hoy, the baseball team’s senior vice president of operations. And, he added, “contact your city council and your area Met Council representative.”

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