Minnesota's only contemporary commuter train, the Big Lake-Anoka-Minneapolis Northstar service, has underperformed expectations since it launched in 2009. Its initial ridership was about 2,200 a day, 90% of the forecast 2,460. By 2017, that had climbed to more than 2,800. These numbers compare well to similar regional commuter train startups in other cities like Denver, Seattle and Austin. But many observers had hoped for more.
In the pandemic, ridership plummeted to a relative handful — as on all transit services. And it is slow to recover.
Some critics have seized upon these ridership numbers to call for abolition of Northstar. But these anti-transit zealots are missing the forest for the trees. Northstar has issues, but all are solvable. The potential benefits to the metro region far outweigh the public cost of Northstar.
The issues include both big and small problems.
The small problems range from the Metropolitan Council overpricing the service when it opened to a lack of advertising and promotion.
The bigger problems are structural and were designed into Northstar by the Met Council and myopic federal transit bureaucrats who paid part of its costs. Basically, Northstar runs too short a route and doesn't work hard enough.
The original proposal that evolved into Northstar was a cross-metro regional rail service that supplemented the freeway system. It would have run between Red Wing and Elk River, calling at St. Paul's Union Depot, both campuses of the University of Minnesota (via a stop at the intercampus busway), Minneapolis and Anoka, and other intermediate stops. Trains would operate all day, not just in rush hours, keeping expensive train sets working by serving all potential travelers, not just all-day commuters.
Northstar should at least go to St. Paul before it expands to St. Cloud. Obviously, St. Paul's population is far larger, but on the way to St. Paul the trains also would serve the University's two main campuses, with a combined daily population equal to a third city.
The early plans for Northstar included going all the way west to St. Cloud. St. Cloud-area commuters to the Twin Cities number more than 10,000; getting just 5% of those to use the train would be fairly easy and would add 20% or more to Northstar's ridership. One study forecast an additional million annual riders. Federal transit bureaucrats refused to allow the extension.
Federal transit bureaucrats also vetoed a stop at the Foley Blvd. Transit Center in Coon Rapids, forcing commuters to rely on scores of buses instead of a handful of trains to get into town, adding to bus congestion downtown.
The net effect of all these missteps is the ridership we see today. Northstar is producing exactly what the Met Council engineered it to produce. But we can re-engineer it to work harder and do far better.
When we design a service so that it can be used only by a handful of daily full-day commuters to a single destination, and a pandemic all but eliminates daily commuting, naturally ridership evaporates.
It's not too late to rethink and adjust Northstar to work harder and serve more people across more of the metro region, by correcting the built-in structural defects. Then, it is reasonable to expect that its daily use will mimic traffic on the cross-metro freeways, which has rebounded strongly from its pandemic lows.
Andrew C. Selden, of Edina, is president of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers.