Minnesota transit to get $800 million despite low ridership

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to public transportation. The Metro Transit, for example, recorded a 55 percent decline in total ridership between 2019 and 2020. According to the Metropolitan Council, in 2020 ridership fell “as much as 60% on local bus routes, 70% on light rail, and 95% on express bus routes and Northstar commuter rail” compared to 2019.

New data released in June shows that the situation has not improved significantly. The transit system is still far from recovery.

According to a June Star Tribune article,

Some 7.6 million people took trains, buses, Metro Mobility, Transit Link and vanpool service between January and March, a 56% decline when compared with 17.3 million passengers in the same period in 2020 — just before the coronavirus firmly took hold.

“The picture has not been good,” said John Harper, Metro Transit Contracted Transit Service manager, at a Metropolitan Council Transportation Committee meeting Monday.

The most popular mode of transit was local bus service and light rail, while Northstar commuter rail and express bus routes suffered the most as thousands of people continued to work from home.

Still, all modes reported ridership declines in the first quarter. Local bus service was down 58%, and light rail 55%.

Among the bus categories, bus rapid transit service — including the popular A and C rapid bus lines — fared the best, down 43% in the quarter.

Considering that back to the office has been slow in the Twin Cities, with some companies postponing their return back to the office, it is hard to imagine the transit system will be back to its pre-COVID numbers anytime soon. In fact, most evidence points to the possibility that mass transit is unlikely to recover its pre-COVID ridership levels for numerous reasons. As Cato illustrates,

First, even after getting vaccinated, more people are working at home at least two or three days a week. Second, those who commute to work are finding less congested roads, so driving is more attractive than it once was. Third, people are increasingly moving to areas where transit doesn’t work very well: Redfin data show that home prices in “car‐​dependent” (I prefer “auto liberated”) areas are growing twice as fast and homes are selling in half the time as in transit‐​accessible areas.

Yet despite the signs pointing to public transit potentially becoming obsolete, the federal government has decided to infuse billions into the system. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was passed contains $39 billion for mass transit. Minnesota is expected to get $820 million from the bill to maintain and potentially expand its public transit system.

Transit is a dead end

While COVID-19 can be mainly blamed for the fate of public transit, the system was already facing issues that the pandemic only accelerated.

The North Star line, for example, lost about 95 percent of its ridership during the pandemic, hiking costs for taxpayers to about $63 in subsidies per passenger. Granted some of this was from the federal government. But even before the pandemic, Minnesota taxpayers were paying heavily to subsidize the line –– about $20 per passenger in 2019.

“Northstar, even on its best days, was under duress, and now it’s close to bleeding out,” said Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look. He says the average passenger subsidy in August was about $794, but Metro Transit says it was about $445 including help from the federal government.

A report by American Experiment has evidence showing that even before the pandemic, ridership in Minnesota’s transit system was going down, with more people preferring to drive for numerous reasons. So the decision by the Federal government to prop up transit with even more subsidies is wasteful and unnecessary.

Worse yet, if some of these funds are used to expand the transit system, Minnesota taxpayers will be on the hook for even higher subsidy spending once the federal funds run out.