Despite rising gas prices and traffic congestion, ridership on the Northstar commuter-rail line is down.
Officials cite several factors, including a warm winter and a not-so-hot Twins team, which reduced some incremental ridership. Weekday ridership has held up relatively well, increasing 7 percent from 2010 to 2011 and holding steady in 2012.
But a freight derailment that shut down the line for several days in 2011 resulted in about 1 percent fewer riders. And smaller crowds at Target Field have cut into special-event ridership this year. Through May, overall 2012 ridership is off by about 2.8 percent.
The Northstar line runs from Minneapolis to Big Lake, with stops in Elk River, Anoka, Fridley and Coon Rapids/Riverdale. Since opening in 2009, Northstar has been a favorite target of transit critics -- with some justification.
There's nothing that the Metropolitan Council can do about the weather or the Twins pitching. But it can act on a sensible suggestion and lower fares on most weekday trips by as much as $1. The pricing experiment, which would last nine months in order to measure its success across seasons, has already been approved by the council's Transportation Committee. It should be embraced by the full Met Council when it comes up for a vote on June 27.
Surveys of nonriders suggest that the two biggest barriers for Northstar are its limited schedule and prices. Unlike the Hiawatha light-rail line, Northstar runs on tracks owned by BNSF and is limited to a certain number of trips. However, Northstar could rearrange its existing schedule by, for example, adding a midday route. That idea, and others, should be explored.
The Met Council does have full control over pricing, which many consider to be too high. The most expensive ride, between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, would drop from $7 during weekday rush hour to $6 in the pricing experiment.
The shorter Minneapolis-to-Anoka and Coon Rapids/Riverdale trips would cost $3 instead of $4, and Minneapolis to Fridley would drop from $3.25 to $3. A trip between downtown and the soon-to-open Ramsey station would be priced at $3.50, and service between downtown and Elk River would cost $4.50.
The cuts would cost about $323,000 in lost revenue if there were no incremental ridership increase. But that's unlikely. To break even, ridership would need to increase 19.5 percent, which is also unlikely. The net cost would be paid for in operational cost savings and from budget reserves.
Despite its early struggles, Northstar is a worthy investment for riders and nonriders alike. It offers another transit option and helps unclog roads in the growing northern Twin Cities. But the line can, and should, carry more riders.
Everything, including pricing and scheduling changes, should be on the table as Met Council officials continue to search for the right formula. And whatever changes are made should be smartly marketed to those living along the line.
Northstar should get a boost from the opening of the Central Corridor light-rail line, which will connect commuters all the way to downtown St. Paul. And if the proposed Southwest light-rail line is built, Northstar would be part of a rail system that could connect workers with the burgeoning businesses along that line south of the Twin Cities.
As the metro area continues to grow, there should be a renewed commitment to maximize our developing transit infrastructure. And that includes finding the right scheduling and pricing mix for Northstar.