Minnesota Rail Proponents Push Ahead Despite High Costs, Low Ridership

Published November 13, 2010

Proponents of subsidized commuter rail are trying to extend a little-used line in Minnesota despite budget difficulties in the cities and towns whose taxes help support it.

The Northstar commuter rail line was initially proposed nearly seven years ago as a way to relieve congestion on roads between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, according to Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

“The population density in this area is very low, so it was a ridiculous idea to start with,” Krinkie said.

A feasibility study by the Federal Transportation Administration showed the project was likely to be a money loser, yet proponents won state and federal approval for a scaled-back line from Minneapolis and Big Lake, about half the length of the initial 80-mile project.

Ridership 20% Below Projections
Proponents still hope to extend the line to St. Cloud, but nine months into the first year of operation, ridership was trending 20 percent below the 897,000 riders officials had projected. Many of those riders were using the system on nights and weekends to attend Minnesota Twins baseball games, meaning the rail line has done little if anything to remove congestion during peak travel times, Krinkie says.

“The insanity is that they want to extend the line,” he said. “This never should have been built. It’s not so much a question of cost as it is time. If it’s going to take me twice as long on a train or a bus, I’m going to prefer to drive. I’m not going to use [the commuter line] if it’s not near where I live or it doesn’t go near where I work.”

District 2 Metropolitan Council member Tony Pistilli notes the line is coming in $1 million a month under revenue projections. Riders pay an average fare of $3, but the average cost is $21 per ride.

When to ‘Pull the Plug’?
“That subsidy exceeds that of any other transit mode,” Pistilli said. “So I asked [at a recent council meeting] at what point do we consider this a failure? If you own a stock, you have a buy point and a sell point. What is our sell point?

“I think we ought to examine that,” he continued. “You should always examine the effectiveness and efficiency of your programs. The council has to serve both those who ride the line and those who pay the subsidy. We may have been better to add an additional lane of highway, but that wasn’t part of this plan.”

The plan also didn’t define when the project would be a failure that should be ended, Pistilli added. He says there should be a threshold that the line must meet in order to continue.

District 3 Metropolitan Council member Robert McFarlin said the low ridership numbers might be partly due to the struggling economy, which had yet to slow down when the initial projections were made and the project was approved. McFarlin is chairman of the council’s transportation committee and former head of the state’s department of transportation.

“The ridership numbers are disappointing, but I don’t think it’s time to pull the plug,” McFarlin said.

‘Hard to Throw in the Towel’
Fare increases had been planned to help increase revenues, but the Met Council board rejected the planned increases after hearing of the disappointing ridership numbers.

Even without the fare increase, the rail line is costing riders and taxpayers a hefty sum of money, Krinkie says. Eighty percent of the rail system’s costs are paid through subsidies that come from county and state taxes, leaving citizens to pick up most of the costs of a rail line that relatively few people use.

Despite the poor performance of the rail line to date and low expectations going forward, Krinkie expects Minnesota taxpayers to be saddled with the expense of the system for some time to come.

“Once you have put the infrastructure in place, made upgrades, and built stations, it’s very hard for proponents to throw in the towel,” Krinkie said. “There is really nothing to sell outside of the rolling stock. This is a boondoggle of significant proportions.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.