Jill Burcum: Northstar: Riding the rigid rail

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2009 - 2:28 PM

Will a limited schedule limit ridership (and be a brake on transit growth)?

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At 6:10 p.m. in Minneapolis, the last north-bound Northstar of the day takes on passengers at the Target Field Station before heading north to Big Lake.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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 I could barely contain my excitement after getting a sneak preview last summer of the new Northstar Line now gliding into Minneapolis from the northwest suburbs. Stepping into the gleaming blue-and-yellow rail cars, I happily pictured myself settling in with a latte and a newspaper for a stress-free ride to work -- a stark contrast to my daily battle on the roads through congestion-plagued Hwys. 10 and 252.

But after taking Northstar to work on Monday -- couldn't resist riding on its first official day of operation -- I'm back behind the wheel of my dusty Volkswagen. And with rare exceptions, maybe snowy days that really snarl traffic, that's where I plan to stay. The reason? The state's sparkling, much-needed new rail line has an Achilles' heel barely mentioned during last week's inaugural festivities: its limited schedule.

By design, it serves commuters lucky enough to have an 8-to-5 schedule who never work late, but few others. If you're relying on Northstar to see the Holidazzle parade, for example, you're out of luck unless you go on a Saturday. On Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, the last train out of Minneapolis leaves before the first light-filled float rolls down Nicollet Mall at 6:30 p.m. Planning to take in the Twins, see the Timberwolves or cheer on the Vikings? Some home games fit Northstar's regular schedule, but a fair number may not. Fortunately, Northstar can run additional special trains to serve sports fans or others attending big events, but only 30 times a year. The Twins alone have 81 home games in 2010.

Then there are commuters like me. My workday starts and ends later than most: 9 to 6. That's problematic on both ends. The last of the five morning trains into Minneapolis that I can catch leaves at 7:42 a.m. I had to be at the Coon Rapids station more than an hour before I normally back my car out of the garage.

Having the last of the five evening trains out at 6:10 p.m. also leaves zero wiggle room to deal with day's-end demands. I made the train Monday night, but rushed through a key interview so I could leave work early to catch the Hiawatha Line in time to get to Northstar's Target Field station by 6:10 p.m. I also had a backup ride ready.

To be fair, those who pushed long and hard to make the $317 million Big Lake-to-Minneapolis Northstar Line a reality always intended it to serve only as a "commuter rail,'' meaning a train that operates during peak times to ease rush-hour congestion. Doing so likely saved several hundred million dollars. Northstar's more limited service meant it didn't need costly new tracks built for exclusive use, unlike light-rail projects. Instead, it purchased the right to run at certain times on tracks owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

My fear is that this tradeoff -- limited schedule for a lower price -- may jeopardize Northstar ridership, as well as the success of this line and other regional rail projects. Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart and other farsighted Northstar champions are positioning one of the nation's fastest-growing population corridors for a future in which energy prices are increasingly uncertain. While hard-core environmentalists hope skyrocketing gas prices cause us suburbanites to abandon our communities and pile into Warehouse District condos, that's simply not realistic. Better to start putting in transportation infrastructure like Northstar now vs. scrambling to do it 10 or 20 years down the road.

But if people aren't riding Northstar, it's hard to justify expensive investment in new rail projects or extending this one to St. Cloud. While transportation wonks may always have grasped the schedule limits of a commuter line, it is likely a surprise to many would-be riders. If they try the train once and it doesn't work, will they come back?

Erhart and other Northstar officials are well-aware of what's at stake. Expanding Northstar's schedule would be expensive and may not be possible until additional track is built between Coon Rapids and Interstate 694 in Fridley to ease a freight-rail bottleneck in the area. To their credit, officials are pushing hard to coordinate the Northstar runs with sports teams' schedules. They've also adjusted the regular schedule since last summer to allow crack-of-dawn commuters like Bob Bietz of Ramsey to ride the line. Bietz, who works at the airport, had called me last summer to complain that Northstar's preliminary schedule didn't accommodate early birds.

Erhart believes north suburban commuters understand that Northstar's opening is but a first step in bringing more transit options to the area. I hope he's right. Getting the Northern Lights Express passenger rail up and running from Duluth to Minneapolis, for example, will expand rail riders' options, he said. "In the long term we believe we'll have a system to serve the entire metro community ... in a very productive way. We're not building this for 2003 ... or 2009. We're building this system for 30, 40, 50 years into the future.''

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