Each day, Sinduja Thinamany climbs aboard the Northstar commuter train in Big Lake, hopping off when it chugs into Fridley. A 30-minute walk to her new job at Medtronic awaits her at the station.
Not that she minds hoofing it — but thoughts about winter in recent weeks had the lab technician worried she may have to forgo the train and drive to work instead.
That’s why Thinamany was eager to catch a new shuttle service that is transporting commuters from the Northstar station in Fridley to major area employers.
The beleaguered Northstar commuter rail line, which has battled slumps in ridership and on-time performance since it began service in 2009, is getting a boost from a $240,000 federal grant awarded to Anoka County for the shuttle service — one of eight projects selected for federal funding by the Metropolitan Council.
The Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant is going toward the yearlong shuttle service, which began running Sept. 5. A kickoff event for the service is planned for 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Fridley Northstar station, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 8 a.m.
The shuttles travel along dedicated bus routes, making stops at Medtronic’s headquarters and its Rice Creek East facility, Cummins Power Generation, BAE Systems and Unity Hospital.
Those heavy-hitting employers draw more than 6,000 workers to Fridley, according to city staff. Anoka County officials say they hope the new shuttles will entice more commuters to try out Northstar, which cost $320 million to build and shares its rails with freight trains.
“It’s the last-mile piece,” said County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, whose district includes Fridley. “When you get to the train station, you could be several miles from your destination. This should help close that.”
Convenient, but costly for taxpayers
The shuttle service arrives at a time when overall Northstar ridership is inching upward. Metro Transit numbers show it increased just over 1 percent last year to 2,369 average weekday rides, excluding special events. On-time performance has also rallied, climbing from a low of about 69 percent in 2014 to nearly 99 percent so far this year.
But the public subsidy for Northstar is huge: $17.76 for each passenger in 2016, according to Metro Transit.
“We are committed to making lemonade out of lemons,” said Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte, chairman of the transportation committee. “We don’t believe Northstar is successful but ... we’re committed to making it as best a commuting solution as we can.”
County officials say that the shuttles may continue beyond the yearlong project if the service proves successful.
That’s Thinamany’s hope, based on the time and money she saves taking it. Plus, the St. Cloud resident can lighten her work bag by leaving her walking shoes at home.
After catching a bus in St. Cloud to get to the Northstar station in Big Lake, Thinamany pays $6 a day to ride the train to Fridley and back. Bus fare included, her daily commute costs $10.
“It’s still cheaper than having a car and driving it to work,” said Thinamany, who began her job at Medtronic about six months ago. “And I don’t have to worry about traffic.”
That was one stress Gene Carlson happily ditched when he started taking the train earlier this month. Carlson, who works as a mechanical engineer at BAE Systems, commutes from Elk River and decided to ride Northstar after learning about the shuttle service.
Carlson first took the commuter train several years ago, riding his bike from the station to work. But he found himself less motivated to do so through the winter. Now, back aboard the train, the Elk River resident said he enjoys his commute by train and shuttle bus, which allows him to listen to podcasts.
“It’s really convenient,” Carlson said. “It takes that whole traffic headache away.”