Anoka County and Metro Transit locked in Northstar funding dispute

Anoka County and Metro Transit are failing to agree on who should pay to operate the Northstar commuter rail line more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic sent ridership plummeting.

Anoka County Council has made what it calls its “full and final payment” to cover the county’s share of 2022 operating costs for Northstar, but Metro Transit says the $1.95 million check dollars does not fulfill the county’s obligations.

Metro Transit and Anoka County have been fighting over payments for two years. The transit agency said it needed county money to operate a full schedule with four inbound and outbound rides each weekday.

When ridership dropped 70% with the onset of the pandemic, the transit agency reduced service to two daily trips in each direction and scrapped popular special event trains for the Twins and Vikings games. . With fewer trains running, Anoka County officials say they should only have to pay for services received.

The feud left riders like Monticello’s Joe Montalvo caught in the middle.

“It’s limited,” said Montalvo, who was waiting for an afternoon train at Fridley Station on Wednesday.

Montalvo said he rode Northstar regularly before the pandemic, but now carpools most days. After waiting two years for trains to run more frequently, “I lost hope,” he said.

The line runs from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, including stops in the Anoka County towns of Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley.

Anoka County said it left its last meeting with the Met Council in December “with the ball in its court”, waiting for the council to schedule a meeting. “It hasn’t happened yet,” a county spokesperson said Saturday.

“We have been in regular contact with the county at the staff level, but we are not aware of any requests for meetings at the staff or decision maker level…and have never refused to meet with us,” said the agency in a press release. .

Anoka County was supposed to have paid nearly $6 million to Metro Transit last year, but managed to reduce its bill to $1.95 million. Federal COVID relief funds and a rebate from the owner of the railroad, BNSF, made up the difference. Although the county and Metro Transit have agreed to the 2021 figure, no agreement has been signed on this year’s payment.

“They’re offering the same service in 2022, so we’re paying the exact same amount we gave them in 2021, even though they charged four times the amount,” the Anoka County Board Chairman said. , Scott Schulte, at a June 28 board meeting. “Consider this our full and final payment for 2022.”

Metro Transit was seeking to raise approximately $4.6 million from the county to cover 2022 operating expenses. This amount assumed Metro Transit would run four weekday trips each way, but no game day service.

“The Metropolitan Council continues to indicate [game day] the service is not occurring solely because of the amount of the county’s payment, when this service was never included in the 2022 agreement,” the county’s statement read.

But Metro Transit said it was unable to increase service levels this year because Anoka County withheld payments for the last six months of 2020 and all of 2021, according to the agency spokesperson Drew Kerr. The county has since paid in full for both years.

The $1.95 million payment for 2022 “will not be sufficient to cover the county’s share of current service costs,” Kerr said. “This means that it will not be enough to pay for service increases or the addition of event services, as we had hoped in 2022.”

Northstar ridership was around 2,700 passengers a day before the pandemic. After declining, passenger numbers have doubled this year to about 300 daily boardings, according to data from May Metro Transit.

Afnan Siddique, a student at the University of Minnesota, said having only two trains a day is impractical. More options would allow him an extra hour of sleep, he said, and make it easier to get to and from his summer internship at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

“If I could take the train at 7:30 a.m. [a.m.] instead of 6 would be nice,” he said.

Anoka County is one of several funding sources that cover Northstar’s costs, including Sherburne and Hennepin counties and MnDOT. The county has no say in when the trains run or for what purpose. This decision belongs to the Metropolitan Council.

Kerr said the county needed to add about $1 million to its authorized payment just to cover service costs, citing rising fuel, utility and parts costs.

As the standoff continues, Kerr said the transit agency will continue to run only two trains on weekdays.

“We cannot add services when we are not fully paid for the current service,” Kerr said. With other funders “up to date with their payments, we are preparing to add service once an agreement is reached with Anoka County.”

County Commissioner Matt Look said the county council likely wouldn’t object to paying the full $4.6 million if Metro Transit withheld its part of the deal to run four trains in week in each direction.

“We have a very underperforming asset, but we have the luxury of paying for it,” Look said. “We only have the responsibility to ensure that we pay for a contract and that the service we paid for has been rendered. We must do what is best for our people and our taxpayers.”

Kerr said Metro Transit hopes the differences can be resolved, and that the county’s recent payments for 2020 and 2021 are an important start.

Montalvo said a resolution can’t come soon enough.

“It’s terrible. People are still working,” he said. “They have to settle this.”

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