Earlier this month, fewer than 120 passengers per weekday climbed aboard the Northstar Commuter Rail line — a stark example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has savaged public transportation ridership.
Northstar ridership has plunged 96% since the coronavirus struck, prompting new conversations about possibly shuttering the 12-year-old line connecting downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake.
A measure introduced at the Minnesota Legislature last week by Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, calls for the rail line to be mothballed.
"We never really had the level of commuters to make that line financially solvent. It's been losing money anyway," Koznick said, noting commuter patterns have vastly changed as people increasingly work from home.
Historically, Northstar has served commuters from the northern suburbs heading to downtown Minneapolis for work, Twins games and other special events. But as the pandemic took hold in March, Metro Transit reduced Northstar's weekly trips from 72 to 20 and eliminated weekend service.
While the Metropolitan Council, which oversees public transportation in the Twin Cities, has engaged in recent discussions with Hennepin, Anoka and Sherburne counties about the fate of Northstar, no decisions have been made. But the council has said all options are on the table.
Meanwhile, Koznick's amendment, attached to another transportation bill, would divert Northstar's annual operating budget to businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul affected by the civil unrest last summer following the death of George Floyd.
In 2020, Northstar's unaudited budget was $15.6 million. This year, it's $11.4 million.
A Met Council spokesman declined to comment on Koznick's effort, noting in a statement: "We are letting the Legislature debate its merits."
Shutting down a commuter rail line is a complicated and expensive proposition, but not unheard of.
In Northstar's case, it would require the state to pay $85 million to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a partial reimbursement of federal funds used to build the line. Koznick has suggested that Minnesota's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., should ask for a "waiver" from the hefty fee.
Some transit lines have been decommissioned nationwide, including the Loop Trolley in St. Louis and the OnTrack suburban rail line in Syracuse, N.Y., both due to flagging ridership.
But talk of shutting down Northstar is "premature and ill-conceived," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. He characterized the diversion of Northstar money to businesses in need as "cynical politics."
Hornstein believes public transit "will recover, but it will be slow."
The real issue with Northstar, he added, was the "poor planning" that resulted in the line ending in Big Lake, a rural outpost in Sherburne County, as opposed to the more populous St. Cloud.
Over the years, transit advocates have urged lawmakers to fund the connection. A study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Metro Transit found it would cost somewhere between $36 million and $257 million, but it did not predict potential ridership.
The Minnesota Twins support Northstar service, a popular transportation option for fans since Target Field opened in 2010. The Twins' home opener is April 8 against the Seattle Mariners, just as COVID-19 vaccinations become more prevalent.
"We would like to see this important conduit to Target Field Station and the North Loop remain," said team spokesman Matt Hodson. "Looking to the future, we are hopeful the line will be extended to St. Cloud and beyond."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752