After several dozen passengers boarded the 4:27 p.m. Northstar Thursday at the Target Field stop, the locomotive edged forward and departed right on time.
If it weren’t for passengers wearing telltale masks, it could have been any other fall afternoon. 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.
Last month, officials from Hennepin, Anoka and Sherburne counties met at the behest of Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle to discuss Minnesota’s lone commuter rail line. No decisions regarding Northstar’s future have been made — yet.
“Without a doubt, the global pandemic is causing unprecedented and unpredictable impacts on transit services,” Dresen said. “While the short-term prognosis for Northstar is challenging, we feel the long-term prognosis is healthy.”
Local bus and light-rail ridership has also slumped due to the virus, but not as sharply as Northstar’s free fall.
As the pandemic took hold, Metro Transit responded by reducing Northstar’s weekly trips from 72 to 20 in March. Weekend trips were eliminated, as well as service for Twins games and other special events.
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.
Even before the pandemic, the subsidy for Northstar was among the highest in the Metro Transit system at $19.39 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.
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.’ ”
But Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, sees “a future where people come back downtown to work,” despite issues with crime and the pandemic.
The challenges facing Northstar are not unique — commuter rail nationally has been hit hard, said Ben Fried, spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York-based group that promotes public transportation.
The demographic relying on commuter rail, typically 9-to-5 workers commuting to the inner city from the suburbs, is more likely to telecommute.
“That type of service is the least aligned with how people ride transit now,” Fried said.
And the pandemic has altered traditional peak ridership times, according to a TransitCenter report released Thursday. “Trips are spread more evenly throughout the day and less concentrated during the morning and evening commutes,” a pattern that will likely continue once the virus ebbs, the report states.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison said the county is committed to a multimodal transit system but recognizes the challenges Northstar faces.
“At some point, the pandemic will end and we’ll need Northstar again,” she said.
But Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said he was concerned about Northstar’s ridership even before COVID-19 hit.
“At this point, I think we need to take a very comprehensive look at it,” he said.
Northstar began service in 2009. The $309 million project was originally envisioned to extend north to St. Cloud but stopped short in Big Lake after federal funding ran out. The train also stops in Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Ramsey and Elk River.
Over the past decade, transit advocates have pushed to complete the connection to St. Cloud — work that would cost between $36 million and $257 million, according to a study led by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.