Back to the Future for Northstar Commuters?

     Reclining seats, reading lights, plug-ins for laptop computers and other amenities. No wonder a survey of Northstar passengers yielded a 94 percent satisfaction rating. However, those glowing responses came not from Northstar Commuter Rail passengers, but from riders on an earlier Northstar transit line—the far more efficient and cost effective Northstar Commuter Coach express busses that paved the way for today’s trains.

The current train line's latest ridership statistics through May reveal that Northstar Commuter Rail continues to go in reverse, down three percent (7,600 riders) since May 2011. The once ballyhooed line has come up short from the start, debuting with 183,000 fewer passengers than projected in 2010 and dropping 2.5 percent of ridership in 2011. At the same time, reliance on public transit in the Twin Cities continues to grow, largely on the strength of additional bus riders.

As transit officials strive to find ways to attract more riders through newly announced fare reductions, the Northstar express bus service looks better than ever in hindsight, especially in comparison to its failing successor.

The Northstar Commuter Coach began service along a 30-mile stretch of Highway 10 in late 2001 to "mimic the planned Northstar Commuter Rail line route". It got off to a running start with ridership shooting up nearly 50 percent from 2002-05, ramping up from 121,000 to 180,000 passengers and generally exceeding expectations until being retired by the new trains in 2009.

"Despite limited service, Northstar Commuter Coach has been very successful and we expect the demand to continue to grow in the future," said Duane Grandy of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) in 2003.

Today, Northstar Commuter Rail loses more taxpayer funding in a month--$1 million--than Northstar Commuter Coach spent in its operating budget for an entire year. To be sure, the start-up Northstar bus service made just two stops on the way to Minneapolis, Elk River and Coon Rapids, while the trains also serve Big Lake, Anoka and Fridley. Nor did Northstar busses operate on weekends or for Twins games and other special events.

Yet data show that commuter coaches put Northstar on the map at a fraction of the cost to passengers and taxpayers as the trains that took their place. For example, while Northstar trains haul four times as many passengers each year, they cost some fifteen times as much to operate as the express busses. Official state transit statistics also show:

  • Northstar bus passengers paid a much greater percentage of the actual cost, 66 percent in the last full year of operation (2008) compared to 16 percent for Northstar rail passengers.
  • Northstar bus passengers received a subsidy of $1.77 per ride in the last full year of operation compared to a current subsidy of about $18.46 per rider on Northstar trains. 
  • Northstar commuter busses filled a high percentage of available seats, exceeding more than 80 percent of capacity some years. 

  • While Northstar Commuter Rail plans to cut fares by a dollar in its third year of service to attract customers, Northstar Commuter Coach increased fares by a dollar in its third year of service (2004), gaining 20 percent more riders and holding down taxpayer subsidies.

Just nine months into Northstar rail service in September 2010, the Met Council postponed plans to increase the "introductory" level passenger fares designed to encourage new customers in the first year of service. "Deferring the fare increase to 2012 will allow more time for the economy to improve and the unemployment rate to decline. With more people commuting to work, Northstar ridership will grow," a Metro Transit memo confidently predicted.

Now transit officials have backtracked again, reducing the so-called "introductory" fares by a $1 starting August 1, 2012. And interestingly, Met Council officials are fielding media questions about the option of shutting down the ailing commuter rail line for the first time. They say the estimated $150 million price tag for refunding the federal government’s share in Northstar makes that an unlikely option. If the Northstar Commuter Rail line continues to fall short of financial and ridership projections, however, the successful Northstar Commuter Coach service remains a link back to the future.

                                        Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward at 612-354-2192..

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