Fast-tracking a slow ride
Plans to revive a failed Twin Cities-to-Duluth train service ignore history.
The Northstar commuter rail line in the northwestern suburbs has been a loser from the start of service in late 2009. The 38-mile line from Big Lake to Minneapolis never hit projected passenger numbers, forcing taxpayers to subsidize the cost per ticket by nearly $20 from day one.
But the last year has been catastrophic for the costly line once so highly touted by alternative transportation activists with ridership plunging some 95 percent during the pandemic. Looking ahead, there’s a sense many of the missing passengers will not be coming back as commuters seek to continue working remotely in the post-COVID economy.
A measure introduced at the Minnesota Legislature last week by Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, calls for the rail line to be mothballed.
“We never really had the level of commuters to make that line financially solvent. It’s been losing money anyway,” Koznick said, noting commuter patterns have vastly changed as people increasingly work from home.
It’s gotten to the point where even the Met Council has begun to face the reality that with so many empty seats Northstar may soon be going the way of other 19th century transportation technology.
While the Metropolitan Council, which oversees public transportation in the Twin Cities, has engaged in recent discussions with Hennepin, Anoka and Sherburne counties about the fate of Northstar, no decisions have been made. But the council has said all options are on the table.
Meanwhile, Koznick’s amendment, attached to another transportation bill, would divert Northstar’s annual operating budget to businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul affected by the civil unrest last summer following the death of George Floyd.
In 2020, Northstar’s unaudited budget was $15.6 million. This year, it’s $11.4 million.
As always, the federal funding that enabled the ill-conceived commuter line to start up came with financial strings attached.
Shutting down a commuter rail line is a complicated and expensive proposition, but not unheard of.
In Northstar’s case, it would require the state to pay $85 million to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a partial reimbursement of federal funds used to build the line. Koznick has suggested that Minnesota’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., should ask for a “waiver” from the hefty fee.
The usual suspects at the Minnesota Legislature have come to the beleaguered line’s defense. But instead of talking about extending the Northstar line to St. Cloud as they were a year ago, they’re discussing whether the commuter line will be running at all.
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