A new study indicates that there are no easy fixes for the Northstar Commuter Rail line, a chronic underperformer before the pandemic as well as afterwards when thousands of Minnesotans began working remotely.
Before the outbreak, the 40-mile Northstar line, which connects Minneapolis and Big Lake, mostly ferried suburban commuters to their jobs in downtown Minneapolis during morning and afternoon rush hours. But commuting patterns have likely changed forever due to COVID-19, leaving transit operators across the country trying to figure out what's next.
Northstar "basically fell off a cliff," said Cole Hiniker, the Metropolitan Council's senior manager for Multimodal Planning, said at a council meeting Monday. Ridership plunged by as much as 98% in the early days of the outbreak.
While ridership since has crept back some, Northstar now offers just four daily trips and no longer provides weekend or special service for Twins and Vikings games and other special events. Average daily rides in 2022 numbered about 300 — compared with 2,739 in 2019 — and its per-passenger subsidy was $150.
Ridership has picked up slightly this year. There were 6,137 rides in February, or 309 passengers a day — a 34% increase over the same period last year. Year-to-date ridership has increased 54%, according to the Met Council.
"This really is unchartered territory," Hiniker said.
Before the pandemic, transit officials attributed Northstar's lackluster performance to the fact that service ends in Big Lake, about 28 miles short of the more-populous St. Cloud, the planned original terminus. Public transportation advocates have long lobbied to extend the line to St. Cloud without success, while others have called for the service to be shuttered entirely.
The in-house study, which cost $175,000, hasn't been released in full and doesn't make any recommendations. The council will continue to work with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other funders of Northstar to assess next steps and service scenarios, spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said.
The study offers six potential scenarios to keep Northstar running:
— Current service of four weekday daily trips, with the addition of special events service.
— Pre-COVID service of 12 daily trips, with special events service.
— Extension of the line to St. Cloud, either with four daily trips or nine daily trips.
— Replacing the line with commuter bus service, to run either every 15 minutes during peak hours or 30 minutes during peak hours.
Extending Northstar to St. Cloud could involve negotiating with Amtrak to provide the service. A 2020 study by MnDOT and Metro Transit found such an extension would cost between $36 million and $257 million. The Met Council study put the cost of the extension between $36 million and $67 million but notes the figures are preliminary and could increase.
Extending the line to St. Cloud could result in up to 1,500 people taking Northstar daily, with a per-passenger subsidy of $41 or $52, depending on the frequency of service. But that option also would be the most expensive to operate: about $17 million to $26 million a year.
Commuter bus service for the Northstar corridor is the cheapest option, costing no more than $3.5 million a year to operate, the study says. Ridership would be about 700 people daily, with a per-passenger ride subsidy of $8 to $14.
However, the Met Council says it would be required to repay the Federal Transit Administration's contribution that helped build the $320 million line. Repayment estimates range from $75 million to $160 million.
"Other [transit systems] have tried to do that, and once they found out the price tag they said never mind," Hiniker said. "It's a big question mark."
The study assessed five similar commuter rail lines in the United States to benchmark Northstar's current performance: Amtrak's Downeaster between Boston and Portland, Maine; FrontRunner in Salt Lake City; Sounder in Seattle; Coaster in San Diego; and Trinity Railway Express in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Among those lines, the study found Northstar has the highest per-passenger subsidy and lowest fare recovery, which is the fraction of operating expenses covered by passenger fares.
The study also notes that most rail agencies have restored service since 2020, and that some are even expanding. Intercity rail lines such as the Downeaster, a hybrid train service that offers commuter and city-to-city service between Boston and Portland — comparable to the proposed Minneapolis to St. Cloud Northstar service — have recovered more quickly in the post-pandemic era than commuter lines, said Steve Elmer, planning analyst for the Met Council.