by Mandy Moran Froemming
Anoka is planning to move ahead on plans to build a parking ramp at the city’s Northstar Commuter Rail station.
Back in 2005 the city applied for and received a federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) grant totaling nearly $6 million for construction of the ramp, leaving the city on the hook for the remainder of the construction costs that had once been estimated at close to $12 million.
As the economy fell into recession, the city put the ramp on the back burner, unable to justify the expense.
Set to expire this spring, the city was successful in getting a one-year extension on the grant, pushing the sunset out to March 31, 2013.
It was at the urging of Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look that the city not let the federal funding go and revisit the idea of building the ramp.
At a Feb. 27 work session, the council was presented with a proposal to build a $9.4 million ramp and pedestrian overpass. It is a plan that includes contributions from both Anoka County’s Regional Rail Authority, as well as the Counties Transportation Improvement Board (CTIB). This board is made up of representatives from five metro-area counties that since 2008 have used a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle tax to invest in transit projects by awarding annual capital and operating grants.
“One of the primary reasons the city has an interest in this ramp is to stack parking, which will create developable property,” said City Manager Tim Cruikshank. “This will help to create the look and feel of what we set out to create from day one – an urban rail village.”
Building the ramp on the south side of the rail line will open up the surface lot on the north side of the tracks for future development.
The latest plan also requires the state’s Transit Advisory Board (TAB) to approve a reduction in the number of parking stalls to 350 from 450 – key in bringing construction costs down to $9.2 million.
According to Planning Director Carolyn Braun, an average of 220 parking spots are used each day at the city’s surface lots at the Northstar station on Fourth Avenue.
Under the plan presented by Cruikshank, the city would be paying for $957,000 of the nearly $9.4 million ramp.
Along with the $5.85 million CMAQ grant, the city is also banking on a $575,000 contribution from the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, as well as $2 million in funding from the CTIB.
Both the funding from the rail authority and CTIB have yet to be approved and the city must move ahead on engineering design of the ramp to meet the federal grant requirements before either commitment can be finalized. Those preliminary design costs total $500,000, which would be paid in part by the city and a portion by the rail authority, should its funding participation be approved.
“So there is some risk here,” Cruikshank told the council at last Monday’s work session.
Although the city plans to move ahead with the design of the rail station, it will not be obligated to follow through with the project. It reserves the right to reject any bids on the ramp construction.
“There are a lot of hurdles that need to be cleared before we push go,” said Cruikshank.
While Look can’t guarantee the outcomes of the rail authority, which he chairs, or CTIB, when speaking with the city council he sounded confident the city should move ahead on design plans for the ramp and wants to see that $5.85 million federal grant put to use in Anoka County.
He told the council the city’s planning is what makes it a strong candidate for funding.
“You have a plan going into this,” said Look. “If you didn’t have a plan it would be just a shot in the dark.”
Look also believes there couldn’t be a better time given the low bids that have been coming in on construction costs. He said in the not-so-distant future he can see those costs rising anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.
“When this economy rebounds and I have no doubt it will, the (construction companies) left will have more work than they can handle,” said Look.
A change in attitude
In the past, the council has been wary of spending the city’s money on the ramp, when development has been slow to take off around the rail station.
But with the reduced cost of construction and the likelihood of funding partners, the council has agreed to let the project move ahead.
“It is pretty remarkable that this fiscally tight group (the city council) has changed its tune because of the work of another pretty fiscally tight partner at the county to create an opportunity,” said Councilmember Jeff Weaver.
In the past, Weaver has been concerned about spending city dollars on a parking ramp at the slow to develop rail station.
Councilmember Mark Freeburg has also had his reservations about the construction of the ramp.
“This makes it more palatable,” said Freeburg. “But at the end of the day my big concern is that we’re building a ramp that doesn’t get used a lot.”
The city is planning to use future TIF district revenues generated in the Commuter Rail Transit Village to pay for its share of the parking ramp.
According to Look, another key element of the ramp is the pedestrian overpass, which will improve safety.
“Safety is the crux of this,” said Look. “The last thing we need is someone getting hurt or killed.”
Right now rail users must cross the tracks on foot to either access the train or their cars, depending on their direction of travel.
Those rail lines are busy, not only with the Northstar trains but also freight trains, that travel at high speeds and are often camouflaged by a commuter train waiting at the station.
Commuters have been seen to go around the pedestrian safety arms while a Northstar train is waiting at the station, which can also obscure a freight train coming down the tracks.
Councilmember Carl Anderson said he was happy to see that safety issue being addressed.
Anderson has long been a proponent of the commuter rail and the development he feels it will bring to the city.
“I have always said that cities with the rail will rebound quicker,” said Anderson. “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of it yet, but I still feel that way.”
Cruikshank said the city is looking at the ramp as part of its future development strategy, which includes focusing on getting non-taxable property back on the tax rolls. If the area around the rail station develops, it will mean more tax revenues for the city.
Already, the Volunteers of America has shown an interest in the area, selecting it as the site for its $35 million senior housing and care community.
“Something is going to happen up there in the near future or the long term, but we’re always looking at things in the long term around here,” said Cruikshank.
Mayor Phil Rice questioned whether transit oriented retail development could occur around the base of the three-level parking ramp.
“I would think there would be some kind of revenue producing use that enhances the look of the parking structure and becomes a practical use,” said Rice.
Braun said she believed that would be an option.
Consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates will be moving ahead on the design of the ramp, which will come back to the council for approval. For the pedestrian overpass, it will be using the same design used in Coon Rapids and the future Ramsey station.
If plans move ahead on schedule construction of the ramp is expected to be complete in 2014.
Mandy Moran Froemming is at firstname.lastname@example.org