As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its second anniversary, a disagreement over finances has flared up between the Metropolitan Council and Anoka County, which has balked at paying some of Northstar commuter rail's operating expenses due to the line's plunging ridership.
After remote work took hold during the outbreak, ridership on the Northstar line ferrying commuters between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake plunged a whopping 95%. Through August, just 26,374 riders had taken Northstar this year.
Talk has surfaced once again about Northstar's fate, with some suggesting it should be mothballed and replaced with bus service.
Scott Schulte, chair of the Anoka County Board, said ridership on Northstar has been disappointing since service began in 2009 and that the pandemic has underscored the need to do something about it.
"There's nobody on the train and we're paying full fare," he said.
For now, Northstar service has been cut back to four trips a day during the week. There's no weekend schedule or forays to downtown for special events.
"It's less convenient, but I'm a senior citizen. It still saves me from driving," said Rick Thompson of Ramsey, who takes the train daily to work in Minneapolis.
But Schulte says remote work and commuters' fears about safety in downtown Minneapolis may have forever changed how Northstar operates — or whether it even continues.
The discussion "will be politicized, right versus left, urban versus rural," Schulte said. "But really it comes down to whether it's a good idea to keep it going or not."
Troubled commuter rail
The debate about commuter bus and train service in the wake of the pandemic isn't limited to the Twin Cities.
"A lot of regions are grappling with some of the same challenges," said Paul Lewis, policy director at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Northstar's challenges began well before the pandemic — including the daunting task of attracting passengers to a commuter service that ends in Big Lake, population 11,686, rather than the St. Cloud metropolitan area as originally planned.
Now the pandemic has shifted the conversation from Northstar's possible expansion to its disbanding altogether. The public subsidy in 2020, the most recent figure available, was $97.34 per ride, according to Metro Transit.
Schulte said commuter buses could replace Northstar with the same route and stops that a previous bus service used before the train came to town. "It functioned well, people liked it and ridership was high," he said.
Some in the Legislature are on the same page. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said he will introduce a bill next year to shut down Northstar, even though a similar measure failed this year.
"People are questioning the use of resources," he said.
Shuttering Northstar would require the state to pay $85 million to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a partial reimbursement of federal funds that were used to build the line. But Schulte and others say Minnesota lawmakers in Washington could get the payment waived.
When asked in an interview in August about closing Northstar, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, Nuria Fernandez, was circumspect.
"Every investment needs to be carefully thought out," she said. "When this project was built, there was a need for it. Let's not lose sight of that."
Fernandez said some commuter rail lines have adjusted their schedules to meet a different kind of demand that evolved during the pandemic, such as providing for more weekend or midday service.
Lewis, of the Eno Center, agreed. "Most other countries with regional rail systems don't bring a bunch of people from park-and-ride [facilities] in the suburbs to downtown," he said. "They've repurposed them as regional rail, operating all day in all directions with service that's reliable and affordable."
Besides, Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle said, the council can't shut down Northstar on its own. Local, state and federal partners have a say as well, and such talk is premature, he said.
The pandemic lasted longer than expected, Zelle said, and return-to-work plans have not been implemented for many if not most workers in downtown Minneapolis.
"We don't have a clear picture of the long-term future of commuter transit demand and needs," he said.
Plus, he added, the economic investments along the Northstar corridor were made under the assumption that service would continue.
To that end, the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies is looking at the future of public transit in the Twin Cities following the pandemic, focusing on Northstar and other commuter service.
In the meantime, Anoka County commissioners want some financial reckoning over the money spent to operate Northstar during the pandemic.
Anoka County paid $3.1 million for the first two quarters of 2020, but commissioners said that amount should have been $1.8 million given the plunge in ridership. County officials want the Met Council to return the difference of $1.3 million or reduce its bill for this year by the same amount.
The Met Council, however, says Anoka County owes $2.9 million for this year, and $2.5 million for the second half of last year. A 2018 operating agreement for Northstar outlines the amount that the county is expected to pay every year to keep the trains running.
Northstar's annual operating budget of $11.4 million also is subsidized by Hennepin and Sherburne counties, the state Department of Transportation and fare revenue. Hennepin County officials said they will honor their commitment to help pay for Northstar's operating costs, and Sherburne County Administrator Bruce Messelt said there has been no discussion about the county not paying its share.
Zelle said COVID-related federal relief funds — about $2.4 million this year — have been subsidizing Northstar's operations. "There has been no additional financial impact on Anoka County," he said in an e-mail.
He added: "We are confident this issue will be resolved."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752