Barely a year old, the $317 million Northstar commuter rail line will fall 20 percent short of ridership projections for 2010, according to a Metro Transit official who said "we're very concerned."

Expectations for the 41-mile line from Big Lake to Minneapolis have been set back by the 7 percent unemployment rate, reduced downtown parking fees, moderate (until recently) gas prices and improvements to Hwy. 10, said Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons.

"That's not how we built our expectations," Gibbons said.

Things may get worse before improving. While cost-conscious officials have managed to keep Northstar within its $16.8 million annual budget, they now face a winter without baseball and the boost the line got from Twins home games. Special-events trains to and from the Target Field station were packed during the season.

Northstar's ridership was still 5 percent below expectations through August. By October, when the Twins' season ended, ridership was nearly 11 percent shy of 2010 projections. The numbers for November and early December, not yet calculated, are expected to plummet, Gibbons said.

Proponents of the line remain undeterred.

"This is how commuter rail across the country starts," said Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. "Two thousand riders a day means 2,000 cars taken off the road system every day. That's encouraging."

Added Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: "I will continue with local leaders to help the Northstar line meet its goals and provide this vital service to Minnesotans.

"Completing the Northstar line is an important step to meeting the needs of a growing metro area by providing efficient and reliable transportation that will fuel economic growth while reducing our dependence on foreign oil," Klobuchar said.

Plans for St. Cloud

But plans to extend the Northstar line from Big Lake to St. Cloud have been put on hold, at least until officials from Sherburne and Anoka counties meet again Dec. 22, Yantos said.

"This is not the time to move forward," Yantos said.

Concern over Northstar's ridership comes a month after the election loss of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, longtime chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His defeat was considered a blow to the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth and further clouded the future of a proposed high-speed rail line from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

At least four years ago, before the economy collapsed, Northstar officials predicted that Northstar would provide 897,000 rides in its first full calendar year, Gibbons said. Instead, the figure is expected to be only 715,000 in 2010.

"Mass transit is down all over," said Dan Erhart, chairman of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, who is considered the engine that kept pushing Northstar along through more than a decade of false starts and planning.

"We didn't build this for today, tomorrow or next year," said Erhart, an Anoka County commissioner. "Let's see where we are five, 10, 40 years from now."

Almost always on time

Northstar's track record may provide its most convincing hope. Trains were on schedule 96 percent of the time, Gibbons said. And the 41-mile rail trip between Big Lake and Minneapolis is 49 minutes, regardless of traffic or weather, Gibbons said. Only a few rides were canceled.

The price of Northstar's fares didn't appear a big deterrent, either. The highest-priced destinations were Big Lake and Elk River, at $7 and $5.50, one-way respectively, to or from Minneapolis. Those also were the most popular commutes.

In Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley, home of the line's three other stations, commuters are more apt to use bus service that's not available farther west. Commuters who live closer to Minneapolis also are more likely to drive than those farther out, Gibbons said.

On Nov. 16 and 17, Northstar offered free rides, attracting 500 additional riders the first day and 600 the second.

"We're not fielding a questionable product," Gibbons said. "People tell us we're efficient and they love the Burlington Northern crews on our trains.

"This is still new. There are people in Minnesota who have never ridden on a train. They'll learn that on a crummy, winter day, the train will still get you from Big Lake to Minneapolis in 49 minutes."

Through October, Northstar provided 616,696 rides, Gibbons said -- only about 75,000 below expectations.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419