by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
“I think I can” may be becoming “I know I can” on Northstar Commuter Rail.
Now sporting free Wi-Fi and lower fares, Northstar, like the little engine in the children’s book, could be nearing the top of a hill.
Ridership on the 40-mile commuter rail line has been eking up. Opening four years ago, in the throes of the Great Recession, Northstar’s ridership came in 21 percent below projections, according to Metro Transit.
But numbers are trending upward. Ridership each month of this year has been higher than in 2012, according to Metro Transit.
Average weekday rides topped 3,000 in June for the first time — a level originally projected for 2010 — with a record 24 percent increase in ridership in August.
Metro Transit officials point to the opening of Central Corridor, or Green Line, light rail in 2014, connecting downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, as offering Northstar riders more choices down track.
“It’s been an education,” said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. “But it’s starting to show its potential. It’s really a work in progress.”
There’s been activity along the tracks.
Last November, a Northstar station opened in Ramsey. The upgrading of the Anoka Northstar station, which includes the construction of a three-level, 344-space parking ramp and pedestrian overpass, is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
Commercial development has been occurring along the 40-mile line.
Recently a 230-unit apartment and townhome complex, The Residence at the COR, a short walk from the Northstar station, opened in Ramsey.
To the south, in Fridley, city officials created a tax increment financing, or TIF, district, surrounding their Northstar station on East River Road.
Creation of the district played a role in attracting developer John Allen of Industrial Equities to the city, said Scott Hickok, Fridley community development director. Allen is building a 134,000-square-foot industrial complex, Riverside Corporate Centre, scheduled for completion this year, near the line.
While talking about the Corporate Centre and other development along the Northstar line in Fridley, Hickok said the pace of commercial development will likely be slower along the already-developed southern portion of the corridor.
“The horizon for us is very different than up the line,” he said.
Redevelopment is just slower than first-time development, he noted. Judging from the pace of redevelopment along Chicago commuter rail lines, Fridley could be looking at a 30-year redevelopment horizon, Hickok said.
Commuter rail is appealing to some businesses but is less so to others. A retail business along a light rail line may look to riders as part of their customer base. But Northstar, with a limited number of runs per day, doesn’t hold the same promise, Hickok said.
But he expressed confidence in the future of Northstar.
“Downtown Minneapolis will always be a draw,” he said.
Anoka City Manager Tim Cruikshank mentions the Volunteers of America’s new 120-bed skilled care center, a short distance from Anoka’s Northstar station, as an example of the development occurring in proximity to the line.
There hasn’t been rapid development, Cruikshank said, but things are happening.
“Is it a positive for our community? Without question,” Cruikshank said of having a Northstar station.
The state’s first commuter rail line, Northstar cost $320 million to build. The federal government kicked in about half, with the state and regional rail authorities and even the Minnesota Twins contributing. Anoka County provided about $35 million, according to Metro Transit.
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, Anoka County Regional Railroad Authority chairman, described Northstar as an under-performing asset.
“But I would want to call it an asset,” he said.
Although daily ridership levels need to increase by multiples before considering extensions to the line, Look said achieving the plateau is possible.
Northstar has suffered from a kind of split personality, Lenzmeier argued.
Early ridership estimates were “very optimistic,” because inferences were wrongly made between the Hiawatha light rail and what could be expected on Northstar, he said. Hiawatha runs from neighborhood to neighborhood, while, for Northstar, it’s city to city. Totally different, Lenzmeier said.
Lenzmeier emphasized marketing as key to Northstar’s success.
The fact is, policy decisions are often made by “gray-haired, old geezers types, like me,” Lenzmeier said with a laugh. This is not a small matter, as the millennial generation, a prime transit market, is a unique one to reach, he said.
Lenzmeier credits St. Cloud State Mass Communications students for building awareness on campus of Northstar and bus link service.
Northstar, which has stations in Big Lake, Elk River, Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids-Riverdale, Fridley and at Target Field, was originally proposed to reach St. Cloud. But for political and cost reasons, the transit vision former Gov. Jesse Ventura championed fell short.
“It’s nonsensical,” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said of Northstar not reaching St. Cloud. “But they didn’t have the money.”
Currently, the public subsidy for Northstar is $19.50 per ride. Metro Transit officials said they expect the line’s subsidy to drop with increased ridership. The subsidy, by contrast, for Transit buses is about $2.42 per ride.
“It is a lot of money,” Lenzmeier said of the commuter rail subsidy. But he challenges critics to help build the ridership.
On the Ramsey station platform one recent windy morning, Northstar patrons spoke of the convenience of Northstar, especially in the winter.
“I will get on the train and I will be at work by 7 o’clock,” one patron said.
Another Northstar rider pronounced the system good, though he wished midday service were offered in case he needed to get home.
On weekdays, Northstar makes five runs to Target Field in the mornings, with one run leaving Target Field for the north at 6:13 a.m.
Northstar makes five runs from Target Field north in the afternoon on weekdays, the last train pulling out for Big Lake at 6:15 p.m.
Fares were permanently lowered by $1 on Northstar this year.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected].