As far as new transit openings go, Minneapolis’ new Northstar commuter line is no huge deal. With expected boardings of fewer than 4,000 riders on only six daily round-trip trains, it will reach few passengers and produce approximately zero transit-oriented development. Why, then, should this $320 million train system have been built? Does the State of Minnesota stand to gain from its implementation?
The Northstar line, run by Metro Transit, will offer quick 45-minute trips between Big Lake and a new station at the Ballpark in Minneapolis. Along the route, double-decker trains will stop at four intermediate stations, built brand new, each offering hundreds of park-and-ride spaces. For customers north of Big Lake, a coordinated bus will shuttle passengers from locations as far as St. Cloud (an extension of the rail line is planned to replace that route). Trains will terminate a few blocks northwest of the downtown core where customers will be able to switch to the immensely popular Hiawatha light rail line, which eventually heads to the Airport and the Mall of America.
Unlike most inner-city light rail or heavy rail transit systems, Northstar is designed almost entirely for morning and evening commuters heading in one direction. Five trains will leave Big Lake every morning, arriving at Minneapolis; they will then return in the evening. Just one train will make the reverse commute in the other direction. On Saturdays and Sundays, there will be a total of three round-trips a day.
Metro Transit isn’t alone in building such a one-sided commuter rail system with so few daily departures. The Nashville Music City Star, which runs 32 miles between Nashville and Lebanon, offers six round trips a day (though they admittedly go in both directions). That line was one of the cheapest in the country to build, costing only about $1.3 million a mile, compared to almost ten times that for the Northstar. It has managed to attract an average of about 900 passengers a day. Though Minneapolis’ downtown is more developed than Nashville’s, and though Metro Transit will offer a good connecting service with Hiawatha trains, experience with the Music City line suggests that Minneapolis’ ridership estimates are too high.
The best evidence for this fact comes from the State of Utah’s FrontRunner. This commuter train opened in 2008 along 38 miles between Salt Lake City and Pleasant View, and it was expected to attract between 5,800 and 9,100 daily riders. Like Minneapolis, Salt Lake City offers a direct connection with light rail at its commuter rail system’s downtown terminus. Yet FrontRunner has quickly lost ridership since its peak of 8,700 daily riders in August 2008; as of March 2009, it was carrying only about 4,000 daily trips, a huge decline. This despite the fact that FrontRunner runs 35 round-trips a day, compared to Minneapolis’ six. The latter city’s estimate of 4,000 daily riders seems quite unrealistic considering experience elsewhere.
Even if Northstar does meet its planners’ expectations, it will be no game-changer for the Twin Cities, unlike the Hiawatha line or the planned Central Corridor. The exurban, parking-oriented stations along the line’s route will never support the kind of density necessary to make transit truly successful; on the other hand, neither will such few daily trips, which make it impossible to travel during the midday or at night. 4,000 daily rides will be enough to generate a small amount of activity around the downtown station, but not much else.
The $320 million would have been better spent on promoting transit that can be used round-the-clock by people who have a choice not to use cars — something that’s made virtually impossible by the design of Northstar’s schedule and stations. With several other peak-period-only commuter lines under consideration, however, Metro Transit will likely spend more on projects such as this before it decides to pull back.
Image above: Northstar Commuter Rail route map, from Metro Transit