Northstar rail is a failed experiment

  • Article by: ANNETTE MEEKS
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 6:02 PM

At a minimum, end weekend service and redirect the money.

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On Nov. 16, 2009, Minnesota's first commuter-rail line began operating between Big Lake and Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. Transit advocates had high expectations when constructing the 40-mile line, at a cost to taxpayers of $317 million. It was expected that soon commuter rail would expand to St. Cloud and meet up with new ancillary lines, connecting rail commuters with Duluth and other places north of Anoka County.

Transit needs were and continue to be a very important issue in our seven-county metropolitan region. One of the strongest attributes of our existing and very well-run bus system is its flexibility, relative cost-efficiency and easy accessibility to millions of commuters throughout the metro area. High gas prices and a prolonged recession have made buses an affordable and appealing option for many, and ridership has seen a steady and sustained increase over the past decade. Yet difficult decisions are made every day by transit officials on how to stretch taxpayer dollars to provide the best and most efficient service for as many riders as possible.

Five years ago, I served as chairman of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee. I have to admit I was very skeptical about spending precious transit resources to test commuter rail in the Twin Cities. And now, after nearly three full years of Northstar service, it appears that the skeptics were right: Northstar has failed to meet ridership projections, even during its first full and widely promoted year of operation. Starting in 2010, Northstar Commuter Rail debuted with 183,000 fewer passengers than projected. I realize that no transit-rail line in the country comes close to covering its operating costs. But Northstar continues to defy even the most modest ridership expectations.

Rail proponents have blamed the poor ridership on just about everything as they attempt to justify operation of commuter rail, which continues to cost taxpayers nearly $1 million in ridership subsidies every month. Since November 2009, the Metropolitan Council has blamed dismal ridership numbers on everything from high unemployment (2009) to relatively low gas prices (2010) to mild weather (2012) to improvements on U.S. Hwy. 10 (2010). Heck, they even blamed the hapless Minnesota Twins (2011) for failing to attract more riders.

On Aug. 1, the Metropolitan Council announced another marketing gimmick to entice potential passengers to hop on board. Transit officials cut fares in August by $1 per ticket at every station except Fridley (which saw a 50-cent reduction). This fare cut was on top of the decision in 2010 to not increase the temporary introductory Northstar fares as originally promised. These fare reductions only exacerbate the problems for taxpayers, who are already footing the bill for nearly 80 percent of every ride taken on Northstar. And, even with deep public subsidies and further fare reductions, riders continue to ignore the train.

It's time to stop making excuses for this costly, failed rail experiment. Rather than hemorrhaging even more red ink each month and forcing taxpayers to further subsidize an underutilized service, the Metropolitan Council should take bold action to prevent further and deeper loses. I realize that labor agreements and other long-term federal funding commitments made by the Metropolitan Council mean that we can't shutter the entire line. That's too bad. However, other options would allow us to start mitigating our losses, which come at the expense of other transit options that serve a lot more citizens. So, instead of further slashing of fares on Northstar, offering free rides and other marketing gimmicks, we should stop weekend service on the rail line effective Nov. 1.

During difficult economic times, every government program must be measured by how many citizens it serves and the cost-effectiveness of providing these services. Northstar commuter rail has continuously failed to meet any objective measurement of success. But more important, the taxpayer subsidies necessary to fund this failed experiment deprive other more worthy transit options of much-needed capital. It's time to start cutting our losses and move on.

Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

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