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Continued: Ridership grows but subsidies stay high on Northstar commuter line

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 17, 2013 - 9:40 AM

In the Twin Cities, Metro buses and the Hiawatha light-rail line rely on passenger fares for 32 percent and 37 percent of their operating costs, respectively. Both make numerous stops throughout the day, while Northstar has seven stations with trains running only in the morning and evening rush hours.

Metro Transit officials said they dropped fares to entice more riders, not to raise more revenue.

The Northstar Corridor Development Authority concluded in 2010 that it probably couldn’t persuade the federal government to fund an extension to St. Cloud, then estimated to cost $150 million, because expected ridership wasn’t adequate.

The authority hopes the Northstar Link commuter bus service between St. Cloud and the Big Lake rail station will demonstrate enough demand for the commuter rail to justify federal funding to extend the line. The bus runs during early mornings and late afternoons.

Many riders are students

About one-third of the Link riders are students from St. Cloud State University traveling between campus and their family homes.

“The younger generation now choose not to be auto owners,” said Tom Cruikshank, director of planning for the service. “They’re making travel decisions to not bring a car to campus.”

Dan Clark, a freshman at St. Cloud State from Hastings, is a good example. One evening last week he took the bus link to Big Lake where he caught the Northstar to Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis. He was planning to jump on the Hiawatha light rail to the Fort Snelling station, where his family would pick him up.

He had a table to himself in the Wi-Fi car of the Northstar where he was working on his laptop. “The Wi-Fi is fast,” he said.

The commuter train hasn’t caught on with every classmate he knows from the Twin Cities.

“I’ve talked to people who haven’t considered this an option because they thought they could only go to Big Lake,” he said.

Mead works at the University of Minnesota and picks up the Northstar at the Coon Rapids stop, nearest her home in Andover. Like many riders, she takes advantage of employer discounts that bring her monthly Northstar cost to $76 — about one-third what she says her parking costs would be if she drove.

“The day we had all of that snow, I still got in at the same time,” she said.

Erin Flenner, 30, of Sartell, drives to the Big Lake station because she likes the convenience of having a car to run errands after returning on the Northstar from work in Minneapolis. “I wouldn’t drive all the way,” she said. “This is more relaxing.”

Extending the commuter train to St. Cloud “would be huge for me,” she said.

 

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

 

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  • On the heavily subsidized Northstar train, commuters board the return train to Minneapolis at the Big Lake station.]richard tsong-taatarii/rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com

  • Larry Longmore of Elk River took the Northstar home on a recent night. He said that he finds the train relaxing and that it saves on wear and tear on his vehicle.

  • Boosting the line

    • 83 percent of Northstar line’s cost is government subsidized, among the highest in the nation.

    • 25 percent was discounted from tickets to boost ridership.

    • 12 percent increase in ridership is projected this year, from 700,276 to 784,000.

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