A new rail station that opens next Wednesday in Ramsey could give the Northstar Commuter line the ridership boost it needs for an eventual extension to St. Cloud, an Anoka County official says.
But even as a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday heralded the arrival of the seventh station along the line, others have questioned the cost: about $13 million, or an average of roughly $130,000 for each of the 100 new daily round-trip riders the station is expected to attract. Some also wonder whether the new station will merely siphon riders from the two stations on either side of it.
"I thought that the Ramsey station was not needed and pretty costly," Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, a longtime Northstar advocate, said earlier this fall. "The 200 rides per day. ... I hope they're there."
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, a former Ramsey council member, predicted the new station will exceed the 100 daily round trips that Northstar officials hope it will generate. With a bus line being discontinued because of the station's arrival, and a 230-unit apartment complex going up near the site, Look said the station could increase Northstar's overall ridership by 25 percent. Based on current figures, that would be a rise of about 600 rides per day.
Still, detractors question the outlay for a station that is 4 miles from the stop in Anoka and six miles from the stop in Elk River. They say the time and money would have been better spent on plans to extend the 41-mile line beyond Big Lake, its western endpoint.
"We expect riders from our Elk River and Anoka stations to try the new Ramsey station," said Ed Byers, deputy chief for rail operations for Metro Transit. "But Ramsey will develop its own ridership. We're confident of that."
The two neighboring stations both have produced numbers well above the 200 daily rides foreseen for Ramsey. Elk River attracted an average of 710 weekday rides in September, and Anoka attracted 549. Even the Fridley station -- a late $9.9 million addition to the original line, the closest station to Minneapolis and by far the least used -- had an average of 169 weekday rides in September. Coon Rapids, the other Northstar station in Anoka County, had 552.
Most of the new riders in Ramsey are expected to come from the Ramsey Star Express, the bus line the city will discontinue. That will save the city more than $500,000 it has poured annually into the bus line, which Metro Transit also supplemented.
Northstar celebrates its third anniversary next Friday, and as incentive to try the line, fares will be waived at all stations on Wednesday and Thursday.
For the first 10 months of this year, including weekends, Northstar has averaged 2,374 rides per day. Officials aim to reach a daily average of 4,500 rides in order to apply for federal funding to extend the line to St. Cloud, which could be five to 10 years away.
Ridership, which has generally fallen short of projections, was down 2 percent from January through October compared to the same period last year. But it has increased 7.1 percent since Aug. 1, thanks to a reduction in ticket prices.
Northstar slashed most of its fares by $1 this summer, a promotion that will end in April. With the discount, train prices from Ramsey to Minneapolis, the eastern endpoint, compare favorably with bus prices. A one-way bus fare from Ramsey to Minneapolis was $3. A one-way weekday adult train ticket will be $3.50.
Ramsey, which hopes to attract development with the station, is paying $3.4 million of the $13.2 million budget. The remainder is divided among the Met Council and the Anoka County Rail Authority ($1.3 million each), the Counties Transit Improvement Board ($3 million) and the state ($4 million). Ramsey also contributed $1.15 million for a city skyway.
"It fits the immediate needs for the people in Ramsey, and I'm glad they got it, but I don't see how it helps St. Cloud's cause," said Stearns County Board Chairman Leigh Lenzmeier, who also chairs the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.
"Building ridership is the key, but I don't think there's a guarantee that the Ramsey bus riders will take the train," Lenzmeier said. "I hope I'm wrong, but there could be a pushback from bus riders unhappy about having the service discontinued."
Look is optimistic. In addition to former bus riders, he thinks the station could get another 150 riders out of the apartments under construction.
The Ramsey station already has paid dividends by creating jobs and luring development, he said. The station was built under its $13.2 million budget.
The Northstar line cost $317 million; $156 million came from a federal grant. It was envisioned to run from Minneapolis to Rice, just beyond St. Cloud, but it staggered for years because of politics, as well as the unforgiving economy.
For now, there is no timetable for extending the line to St. Cloud, Byers said. Ramsey is simply the next stop.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419