Choosing to take the commuter train (or not) is a personal numbers game.
In this season of gift-giving, the metro area just received a whopper: the shiny new train known as the Northstar Line. But as with some presents, commuter-rail wasn't on everyone's list, and deciding what to do with it comes down to some very personal math.
Does the train make my commute shorter or longer? Do the 12 daily trips match my schedule? Is it cheaper than driving, even if it costs more than the bus? With my old bus route gone, do I have a choice?
The debates are an echo of the ones that transportation planners had to make -- and continue to make -- in getting the line up to speed, and like the riders, they are expected to keep crunching numbers. Starting Monday, for example, all weekday trains leaving Minneapolis will do so 5 minutes later, to give people more time to get to the Target Field station.
The tweaks won't be enough to lure back Michael Carrizales, who lives in Anoka. He did a Northstar trial run on the second day of service and "it didn't save me much time at all." His express bus stop is on the same block as his job at the Hennepin County Government Center, and he found the light-rail connection frustrating: "I could walk faster."
"Paying more for all this headache" didn't make sense, Carrizales said -- the train was a dollar more each way. So he went back to his Coon Rapids bus, which comes by every five minutes or so at rush hour, compared with the every-half-hour-or-less Northstar trains.
"Ridership patterns won't settle for some number of months," said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman. The agency could opt to alter the times that the 12 trains run, but actually adding trains could cost millions of dollars for easements, maintenance and possibly equipment, he said.
In creating the $317 million line, Northstar's planners paid $107.5 million to BNSF, the railroad that owns the tracks and whose employees operate the commuter trains. That chunk of money includes perpetual rights to run the 12 trains a day on the tracks and 30 "special" trains a year (such as the one for this weekend's Vikings game), as well as some track upgrades. If there is demand for additional trains, it's "right back to the bargaining table with BNSF," Gibbons said.
To help speed light-rail trains that seem to crawl across downtown, changes to traffic-signal timing are in the works for the Warehouse District, he said.
The Northstar Line is expected to have 3,400 riders -- 1,700 round-trips -- each weekday. On its first day, it drew a little over 2,400 riders. Metro Transit isn't releasing ridership numbers until after the first full month of service. Fares range from $3.25 to $7 along the 40-mile line, which connects Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Minneapolis and opened Nov. 16.
In some ways, Northstar is like a gift that a small child gives to a parent -- it's really the parent's money that paid for it. Minnesota taxpayers paid half the start-up costs and will fund its operating budget, which is $16.8 million for 2010.
No small change
For Barry Siebert, the math does not compute. As a southeast metro resident, he says he gets no benefit from Northstar. He finds the line's price tag staggering, especially given the number of riders. Counting each round-trip in the initial estimate as one person, the line cost $186,000 per person to build.
"As a Minnesota taxpayer, why am I forced to pay for and subsidize commuting costs for people who chose to live very far distances from where they work?" he wondered.
Northstar's subsidy doesn't sit entirely well with Bob Westman of Andover, who rode the bus to downtown Minneapolis for 10 years before switching to the train -- or rather, before his park-and-ride lot was switched to rail service.
Northstar costs a dollar more each way than the bus, and he said the extra $44 or so a month has caused some grumbling. In a state with a reputation for high taxes, he said, he wonders how the line benefits other Minnesotans who are helping pay for his way to work.
At the same time, a budding rail network could help boost the Twin Cities' national profile, he said, and he is pleased with the way the train gives him a shorter commute vs. driving, with no hefty downtown parking expenses. He gets more time for family activities and is able to get his mind into "home mode" sooner.
Quality of life is something that transportation planners in Minnesota are increasingly talking about, rather than just statistics such as miles driven and bodies moved.
Costs and benefits
"I think rail, to a lot of businesses and a lot of people, represents viability for your community," said Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. He has heard every kind of criticism of the project, including from people who won't have reason to ride it, and he points out that his own tax dollars support many roads and bridges he will never drive on and schools he will never attend.
He noted that the Federal Transit Administration required "volumes and volumes of analysis" of the costs and benefits of the line before it would agree to pay for half of it. "I think that people are driving the demand of rail in the country, and it happens to work very well in this corridor," he said.
Nancy Chrissis of Anoka would agree. She is now spending an extra $10 a week to get downtown vs. the bus, and "I think it's well worth it." It saves her about 10 minutes on her commute overall because she isn't having to drive as far as she was to catch a bus.
She has a positive attitude about the less-convenient drop-off spot downtown: "This is better for me," she said, "because I walk more."
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491