Here's an idea that's literally out of left field: Although Northstar's Fridley station has been the least used along the four-month-old commuter rail line, it might be a hit with Twins fans from Minneapolis who want to avoid parking hassles and fees around Target Field.
Northstar will provide service to and from 53 Twins games this year and will be offering a round-trip family rate of $8 from Fridley to downtown, which is expected to be less expensive than parking fees close to the new ballpark. That family rate -- available after 9 a.m. starting April 2, and good for two adults and three children ages 6 to 12, with younger kids riding free -- might be enough to entice fans from Minneapolis who want to avoid the traffic snarls to ride to the Minneapolis station at the corner of the ballpark's left field.
Other Northstar stations will offer a family round-trip rate -- $10 from Coon Rapids and Anoka, $13 from Elk River and $17 from Big Lake. But the Fridley station offers the intriguing possibility of fans actually driving away from the stadium to take a train to get to a game.
"It's not far-fetched at all," said Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. "We've added trains for many of the home games already, and there could be more."
Those additional trains, along with Northstar's growing familiarity, could determine how successful the $317 million, 41-mile commuter line will be -- at least for the short run.
Northstar's goal for its first three full months was to attract 139,736 commuter rides, Gibbons said. The line came close -- with 137,615 total rides in December, January and February.
Metro Transit officials hope Northstar's early track record will boost attendance, enabling the line to reach its 2010 goal of 897,000 rides. Of 300 January trips, only seven were late. In February, nine of 288 trips were late, but five of those were related to Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight cars derailing, Gibbons said.
"As commuters become familiar with Northstar and Target Field, there's no telling where our riders will be coming from," Gibbons said.
After four-plus months, Northstar officials know that the Elk River station has been the most used and the Fridley station -- the one closest to downtown Minneapolis -- has been used the least, by far. Fridley's frequent all-day bus service to and from Minneapolis has contributed to the train station's comparative inactivity, said Bruce Howard, Metro Transit's director of marketing.
In February, when Northstar's ridership totaled 44,705, only 1,180 of those riders began journeys in Fridley. During the same period, 6,860 commuters got on Northstar trains in Elk River; 5,774 departed in Big Lake; 4,819 in Anoka, and 4,747 in Coon Rapids.
Some of those commuters came from as far away as St. Cloud, Albertville and St. Michael, according to Adam Harrington, Metro Transit assistant director of route and system planning.
Howard was not about to predict how adding trains to accommodate afternoon games will affect ridership other than to say, "We're hoping it's going to be a big turnout."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419