Still Off Track: Northstar Commuter Rail Ridership Declines in Second Year of Service

Heavily subsidized train falls short of 2011 passenger goals and 2010 ridership numbers

MINNEAPOLIS, MN--When the highly touted Northstar commuter rail line debuted with 20 percent fewer riders than supporters promised in its first year of service, transit officials promptly lowered expectations for year two.  Metro Transit reduced the projected number of passengers from 897,000 in 2010 to 750,000 in 2011, anticipating about 16 percent fewer riders than predicted for the inaugural year. Based on ridership results obtained by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota for year two of Northstar service ending in November, 2011, it appears Metro Transit officials did not lower expectations enough. When it comes to overall ridership numbers, the $318 million commuter rail line continues to head in the wrong direction.

The number of passengers taking the commuter rail line through November, 2011 declined by some 18,000 customers over Northstar’s first year in business. (The first full month of Northstar service began in December, 2009.) The final tally came in at 696,790 passengers compared to 714,915 the year before, down about 2.5 percent.   The shortfall was more dramatic when compared to ridership goals for the year, falling 53,000 riders and seven percent short of projections for 2011.

The decline in Northstar commuter rail ridership comes at a time when overall reliance on public transportation in the Twin Cities continues to increase. Through October, 2011 Metro Transit officials said combined public transportation ridership had topped 60 million rides on the strength of a 4.5 percent increase in the number of Twin Cities residents taking the bus.  Only light rail and commuter rail usage was down somewhat.
Monthly Northstar ridership ranged from a high of 78,898 in August to a low of 44,197 in February.  The busiest six months coincided with the baseball season from April through September, when some 406,000 passengers relied on Northstar (58 percent of annual ridership).
Metro transit officials have attributed the decrease in 2011 ridership on fewer special events to draw passengers to games and other attractions. Northstar supporters have pointed out that the number of commuters using the train on weekdays increased over the first year.  They project that the opening of a new $13.2 million Northstar station now under construction in the suburb of Ramsey will increase ridership by about 200 passengers per day. The number of passengers currently riding the commuter line averages about 2330 on weekdays.
The trend toward fewer riders puts more pressure on taxpayers’ pocketbooks to subsidize the train service’s more than $16 million annual operating budget.  Passengers pay only a fraction of each ticket, roughly 21 percent of the actual cost of a ride. Ticket sales were expected to cover just $2.64 million of Northstar’s annual operating costs, which were projected to drop slightly from $16.8 million to $16.5 million in 2011.
The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota has calculated that Northstar runs up a more than $1 million per month operating deficit.  Fewer passengers than budgeted for means less revenue coming in to pay the costs of running the commuter trains.  The onus falls again on increased subsidies from taxpayers, whether they ride Northstar or not.  A 2010 FFM report based on Metro Transit statistics calculated that every $14 round trip ticket on the Northstar Commuter Rail Line costs taxpayers an additional $29.66 in subsidies. 


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