Minnesota's first commuter rail line is marking its first anniversary this morning, as Northstar trains pull out of Big Lake at 5 a.m. and Minneapolis about an hour later.
This year, nearly 600,000 people have stepped aboard the line's trains for the half-dozen round trips Northstar makes daily between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis.
But there haven't been as many riders as Northstar's builders had hoped when the line opened with great fanfare. Ridership is running about 5 percent below projections -- or about 30,000 fares. The shortfall is expected to worsen to as much as 15 to 20 percent below projections for the rest of this year.
Still, commuters who use the line are happy that they can take the train instead of driving.
"Traffic's pretty bad, and the train is a lot easier," said Jeff Burrell, a systems administrator who lives in Coon Rapids. "It's cheaper than paying for filling my tank every four days. It's convenient, it's more convenient [and] it's a smoother ride than the bus."
The spacious cars and reliable service are draws for commuters, with trains that run on schedule about 96 percent of the time.
"Less gas, easier on the car," said Ruthann Petrell, who rides the train to commute from Ramsey. "Bad weather -- I don't have to drive in the snow."
The main reason for the lower than expected numbers is the economy, Metro Transit Spokesman Bob Gibbons said.
"With an unemployment rate of 7 percent, there are fewer people going to work," Gibbons said. "And that is magnified by the nature of Northstar service. It is designed specifically to take people to and from work."
There are other factors, as well. Gas prices and building occupancy rates have fallen, making it cheaper to drive to and park in downtown Minneapolis. Improvements to a main commuting artery, U.S. Highway 10, may also make it a little more bearable to drive.
Those factors may also have contributed to a smaller dip in Metro Transit ridership overall.
But both supporters and critics are calling for Northstar to do better.
Andrew Seldon, president of the Minnesota Association of Railroad passengers, said parts of Northstar were ill-planned. He said Northstar's main shortcoming is the lack of through service to job centers such as the University of Minnesota.
A second big problem is that lack of a midday round trip prevents Northstar from being used by any of the many people who are driving into downtown Minneapolis to go to the doctor, to go shopping, to do whatever else people are going to do in downtown Minneapolis.
Seldon said separating the bus and train terminals in Coon Rapids was a mistaken bureaucratic fiat from Washington.
"You could literally cut a hole in the fence and walk from the parking lot to the train as easily as you could walk to the bus," he said.
But many of the problems can be fixed with better connections, he said, noting that the Central Corridor light rail line is scheduled to link Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2014.
Others say Northstar should be a lesson for supporters of more trains, including an extension of commuter rail to St. Cloud, and for proposed lines going into St. Paul from Hinkley and Hastings. Northstar officials said earlier this month that they won't apply for federal funds to extend the line to St. Cloud, citing projected ridership numbers.
Jonathan Blake, vice president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank, said taxpayers subsidize about 80 percent of the fares for each person that gets on the train.
"What we would love to see is that Northstar really catches on, that ridership skyrockets -- and that taxpayers can be taken off the hook for this," Blake said. "That's just not reasonable."
But Metro Transit officials say that number is typical of commuter rail lines around the country, and that Northstar is actually hitting its financial goals, despite the sag in ridership numbers.
Still, they're hoping to bring those up. Metro Transit is offering free rides on Northstar today and tomorrow to get new riders to try the train -- particularly as winter approaches.
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