Fast-tracking a slow ride
Plans to revive a failed Twin Cities-to-Duluth train service ignore history.
The Northstar commuter rail line never has lived up to ridership expectations. It’s always been a huge loser for taxpayers, who have heavily subsidized every ride taken on the train, including more than $19 for each ticket sold last year.
But since the pandemic hit six months ago, Northstar ridership has declined to a mere trickle, tripling the per passenger subsidy this year. The number of riders has plummeted to the point where some elected officials wonder out loud whether it should continue to operate, according to a Star Tribune update.
But ridership on Northstar, a commuter train that connects downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake while running through the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs, has plunged about 95% since the COVID-19 outbreak.
As the Metropolitan Council considers harsh budget realities for public transportation next year, the fate of Northstar has come into sharper focus. Should it be shut down temporarily? Should buses replace train service? And what’s the status of the long-proposed extension to St. Cloud?
“All options are on the table at this time,” said Met Council spokeswoman Terri Dresen, in an e-mail.
State transit authorities have long since slashed the number of runs on the beleaguered line before raising the possibility of outright shutting down the service.
Not surprisingly, all modes of public transit have taken a big hit under Gov. Tim Walz’s continuing emergency declarations. But none as devastating as Northstar.
But Northstar’s numbers remain stark: Ridership in May was 1,158, a low point this year that recovered slightly in August, according to the most recent figures available. But it’s far cry from the nearly 57,000 passengers in January, before the outbreak.
From a budget perspective, the council estimates the subsidy per passenger is $62.95 so far this year, which includes a CARES Act infusion from the federal government.
But in August the taxpayer subsidy skyrocketed.
“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.
Either way, Look and others in Anoka County are questioning Northstar’s future, especially with the advent of telecommuting and an uptick in downtown Minneapolis crime.
“With the rioting and the dangers of working downtown the question then becomes ‘How many employers will stay?’ ” Look said. “They’ll be saying, ‘We don’t have personal bodyguards for employees.’ ”
At the very least, the dramatic downturn in Northstar ridership should end any discussion of extending the commuter line to St. Cloud at the Minnesota Legislature. But critics who’ve always viewed the line as a colossal waste of taxpayer resources may not settle for anything less than shutting it down altogether.
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