Met Council under fire over near empty Northstar commuter trains

Northstar Commuter Rail never did hit the rosy ridership projections officials promised at the line’s inception in 2009. But even Northstar’s most ardent critics must find it hard to believe the still-controversial line’s catastrophic plunge in passengers, declining an astounding 95 percent during and after the pandemic.

Ridership has hit rock bottom, free falling from nearly 800,000 passengers in 2017 to just 26,400 total riders this year through August 2021. In Northstar’s heyday, if you can call it that, some 2,800 passengers a day took the train — almost as many as the 3,200 riders Northstar now averages in an entire month. At that rate, the commuter line will carry an annual total of just 40,000 riders by the end of December.

Not surprisingly, the Met Council continues full steam ahead with four trains per weekday between Big Lake and Minneapolis, empty or not. But the Star Tribune found that one of the three counties that subsidizes Northstar’s nearly $11.5 million operating budget has grown weary of paying for so many empty seats.

Talk has surfaced once again about Northstar’s fate, with some suggesting it should be mothballed and replaced with bus service.

Scott Schulte, chair of the Anoka County Board, said ridership on Northstar has been disappointing since service began in 2009 and that the pandemic has underscored the need to do something about it.

“There’s nobody on the train and we’re paying full fare,” he said.

The cost to taxpayers of subsidizing the flailing commuter line has always been beyond the pale. But now the public pays nearly $100 to subsidize each trip. Plus there are other options.

Schulte said commuter buses could replace Northstar with the same route and stops that a previous bus service used before the train came to town. “It functioned well, people liked it and ridership was high,” he said.

Some in the Legislature are on the same page. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said he will introduce a bill next year to shut down Northstar, even though a similar measure failed this year.

“People are questioning the use of resources,” he said.

For starters, Anoka County commissioners want some of their money back from the Met Council for the scaled back Northstar schedule last year. But the agency’s chair acts as though the hand writing’s not on the wall for the dying passenger line.

Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle said, the council can’t shut down Northstar on its own. Local, state and federal partners have a say as well, and such talk is premature, he said.

The pandemic lasted longer than expected, Zelle said, and return-to-work plans have not been implemented for many if not most workers in downtown Minneapolis.

“We don’t have a clear picture of the long-term future of commuter transit demand and needs,” he said.

Yet with ridership down to a trickle, the pressure will only continue to mount on the Met Council and legislators to defund the Twin Cities’ only commuter rail line.