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Monday, November 16, 2009

Northstar rolls, finally

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It took nearly 13 years, $320 million and a few major derailments, but the Northstar commuter rail line made its initial run this morning, moving full speed ahead out of Big Lake at 5 a.m., the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. Avoiding congestion along Hwy. 10 in Sherburne and Anoka Counties, the sparkling blue, gold and white cars with red trim left Big Lake for the new Target Field station in Minneapolis, with 45-second stops along the way in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley.

But unlike the test rides of recent weeks that often carried politicians and rail officials, this morning's train rides were the real deal -- used by commuters expected to make rail travel to and from work a daily habit. For many of the passengers this first ride was as much about commuting as it was about novelty and about being part of history. Chuck Nyberg, 55, of Elk River bicycled 5 miles in the 26-degree temperatures for the commute to Anoka where he is an engineer.

With aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, tables and floor outlets for laptops and the sheen of new cars making their maiden voyages, passengers on the 5 a.m. train knew they were taking a modernistic voyage into history -- as well as to work.

Not all were expected to do so with their tired eyes open. But those who preferred looking out windows may have watched cars stopping in traffic while the train just glided through.

Rail officials averted one possible last-minute concern at the Fridley station a week ago. The Fridley station was the last to be added to the Northstar project. But Fridley officials said construction had been completed and awarded the project a certificate saying the station was ready for occupancy, said Metropolitan Council spokesman Bob Gibbons.

Northstar officials had to wonder at times if this particularly day might ever come. When officials first began discussing a commuter rail line from the western suburbs and exurbs to Minneapolis, they had targeted Rice, west of St. Cloud, as a beginning point. But with mixed interest at the Capitol in St. Paul and snags in gaining federal funding, the line stalled and was eventually cut in half -- to its current 41-mile route.

Now, traveling at 79 miles per hour for much of the ride, there's no looking back.

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