Its time to pull the plug on the Northstar

“If you build it, they will come.” This might be sound advice when it comes to supernatural baseball fields, but it is bad advice for government transit.

Fox 9 reports:

Ridership on the Minneapolis to Big Lake [Northstar] line has plunged 96 percent during the pandemic as downtown office towers emptied, workers set up home offices, and sporting events were played with few or no fans in attendance. In 2019, the line averaged more than 60,000 riders per month. Over the past year, Northstar has averaged about 2,000 monthly riders.

Met Council, the seven-county agency that oversees Metro Transit, estimates that taxpayers are subsidizing each one-way ride by $68.35, a figure that jumps to $87.79 without federal aid in the 2020 CARES Act. For comparison, a one-way ticket from Big Lake to Minneapolis costs $6.25.

Metro Council Chairman Charlie Zelle argues:

“We think making this long-term decision and shutting down the service completely is not a good idea at this time,” Zelle told lawmakers on the Transportation conference committee. “We do see traffic coming back to downtown. We’re not sure what the patterns are.”  

Indeed, it might well be unfair to decide the Northstar’s fate on its performance during a pandemic. But the Northstar, which began running in 2009, was a loss long before COVID-19 hit. In 2013, the Star Tribune reported that taxpayer subsidies were covering 83 percent of the Northstar’s cost. In 2019, the Star Tribune reported:

Ridership on Northstar last year was flat at 787,327, about 2,814 passengers every weekday on average. Fares are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Although Metro Transit did not have updated figures Friday, the subsidy for Northstar was $18.31 per passenger in 2015.

Using those numbers for a moment, it means that people are only willing to pay $6.25 for a service which it costs $24.56 to provide. In 2019, a St. Cloud Times reporter wrote of a journey on the Northstar that:

For a few moments I felt like a traveler in Europe, looking over farm fields and forests from the top deck of a train. I’ve driven between St. Cloud and the Cities along Minnesota Highway 10 hundreds of times. This was more relaxing. 

It isn’t clear why the rest of us should pick up the tab for the $18.31 it costs her to chill out.*

Ah, but “If you build it, they will come.” The Star Tribune from 2019 again:

Advocates say an extension would be a critical link for residents to access jobs, health care and schools.

But no so critical that they will pay for it. And:

In a recent survey, 70 percent of local businesses surveyed by St. Cloud State University said they expected “neither a net gain nor loss” should the extension be built, according to King Banaian, dean of the School of Public Affairs. Seventeen percent of the firms said they expected a net gain from the expansion, while 7 percent predicted a net loss, he said.

Despite the fact that passenger rail technology is now approaching its 200th birthday and that passenger rail use in the United States peaked about a century ago, we are still told that it is the way of the future. The fact that these systems can only be kept going by government handouts of taxpayer’s cash suggests otherwise.

*It is also worth noting that her journey from St. Cloud to the Capitol in Saint Paul took three hours: she could have driven it in half that time. Would she have been willing to double her journey time at a cost of $24.56?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.