Before the COVID-19 pandemic, subsidies for the Northstar Commuter Line were at $19.41 per one-way trip, or $38.82 per day, per person, according to Metropolitan Council data.
Even on the Northstar Line's best days, we (the counties of Anoka, Hennepin and Sherburne, along with the state of Minnesota via the Met Council) were paying nearly $200 a week per passenger. The only time the line was truly full was when people were riding it to Vikings or Twins games. At most other times, the line's cars were sparsely populated with passengers — it simply wasn't utilized by our residents, and it makes no sense to continue subsidizing a service that is substantially underused.
To put into context just how much the subsidy funding adds up over a year, take 2020 as an example: The amount paid out by our three counties and the Met Council was $15.1 million. The pandemic certainly had an impact on ridership, but even if use of this service rises as the pandemic's effects wane, it's unlikely ever to meet its original ridership goals and certainly will never meet acceptable industry standard subsidies.
Large employers in counties across the state are reconsidering how to conduct business, and there's the very real possibility that many people will still be working from home, even when it's safe to come into an office environment. In addition, large employers, such as Target, are reducing their presence in Minneapolis — another trend that is likely to continue. The result of these changes: even fewer people riding the Northstar Line and continued significant subsidies.
Pre-pandemic, Northstar ran 72 one-way trips per week. Today, it runs 20 one-way trips per week, or two round trips per day. Due to the extremely low number of riders (about 43 riders per day in March 2021), we are paying $47,520 per person per year to take the commuter rail, assuming these people have four weeks of vacation and thus ride 48 weeks a year.
How is that justifiable? It's an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars. We should be asking the federal government to forgive the more than $83 million of repayment required under the full funding grant agreement. In the long term, this is in the best interest of the taxpayers.
I am not advocating for an elimination of transit, but these dollars could be used in a more cost-effective way. Before the Northstar commuter rail, there was an express bus in this corridor that had an 85% fare box recovery, which means 85% of operating costs were covered by fares paid by passengers. For those who understand transit funding, that is almost unheard of.
And we traded in a very successful bus line for failed commuter rail.
The first passenger service on Northstar began in 2009, more than 11 years ago. A decade-plus is more than enough to see that Northstar is not the right public transit option for our communities — it's underused and oversubsidized. Shut it down and stop the bleeding.
Scott Schulte is chair of the Anoka County Board.