Feds new formula for projecting ridership estimates sees 30% crash for Blue Line LRT Extension

When state and local governments propose transit projects they have to generate estimates of ridership.

In 2017, Metro Transit used a “Regional Travel Demand Model” to generate an estimate of 26,600 riders daily by 2040 for the LRT Blue Line Extension from downtown Minneapolis through Robbinsdale, Crystal, and Brooklyn Park.

But the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) now requires states to use a new formula when projecting ridership estimates. Metro Transit used the FTA’s new “STOPS Model” to run those numbers again recently and generated an estimate of just 18,600 riders per day for the LRT Blue Line Extension, down 30% from the previous estimate.

This could be a problem. KSTP reports:

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) chairs the Transportation Committee. Dibble told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that lower projected ridership for the Blue Line could mean a much tougher path toward securing federal funding.

“It’s going to be very, very important that we have a match from the federal government,” said Dibble. “Then, the conversation becomes, ‘Is this expense worthwhile, or should we look at another robust mode, like bus rapid transit versus light rail transit, which has higher capital costs?”

Dibble said the FTA looks closely at projected ridership numbers because it helps determine which projects get rated higher, with top priority, compared to other transit projects around the nation.

“These are highly, highly competitive dollars because there are metropolitan areas all around the country that are, you know, building transit,” said Dibble.

It is true that these numbers are for the old route of the LRT Blue Line Extension. KSTP reports that “Metro Transit plans to run the numbers one more time in the coming months and those projections should be available sometime in early or middle 2024.” Watch this space.

As a broader point, it is worth noting just how sensitive these forecasts are to the assumptions made in the models that generate them. We learned this lesson with the state’s disastrous COVID-19 epidemiological models, and the same principle applies here or to estimates of ridership for the Northern Lights Express. The same applies, incidentally, to any other model, whether you’re forecasting climate or the economy.