Ridership on the Northstar commuter rail line went up last month. That's welcome news for the service, which runs passenger trains daily between Big Lake and Minneapolis, because ridership last year was 20 percent below projections.
Weekday ridership went up 19 percent in January compared to January 2010, according to Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.
"And that's very encouraging, since that's the bread and butter of the service we provide on Northstar," he said.
The 40-mile-long Northstar line is just over one year old. Because it is Minnesota's first modern-day commuter rail service, there was little data on which to base accurate ridership predictions.
The disappointing 2010 ridership levels renewed doubters' questions about whether the rail service should have been built in the first place.
Northstar has been a political lightning rod in Anoka County politics. County Commissioner Matt Look says had he been on the county board during Northstar's gestation, he likely would have opposed it.
"That's not the option on the table right now," said Look. "The option on the table is take what we have, make it successful, make it hit the numbers that have been projected."
Look chairs the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, and represents the county on the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.
His idea for boosting ridership is to build an additional station in the suburb of Ramsey.
"That would capture 10 percent of the riders there," Look said. "I haven't seen the final numbers yet on the uptick here, but I think we're getting close to the projected numbers of what Northstar should be doing."
The cost for a new station at Ramsey is projected at nearly $14 million. Some money is on the table to pay for it. But millions more, including a request for $4 million in state bonding, are needed.
Officials in Ramsey are optimistic about the prospects for the new station, and hope that ground will be broken this year.
But others say the outlook is less rosy.
The main reason for the lower-than-expected ridership on Northstar is the recession and its higher unemployment.
That's the reason landscape architect Laura Detzler no longer rides the train. Detzler, who says she hates driving, was an avid Northstar rider from Anoka to downtown Minneapolis, until she was laid off from her job last year.
"That's the only reason why I stopped taking it," said Detzler. "And it's the main reason why I'm looking in downtown and not other areas, because I want to be back on public transportation again."
Attorney Ana Gomez, also an Anoka resident, hates driving as well. She says she rides Northstar about three times a week for appointments in Minneapolis.
Gomez says one drawback is Northstar's schedule, which is aimed almost exclusively at morning and afternoon commuters.
If Gomez gets a midday call from daycare that she needs to pick up her children, she has to scramble to find a bus because the trains don't run at that time of the day.
"That is the only part that's inconvenient," said Gomez. "I feel isolated in the middle of the day. If anything happens that I have go reach my children, I feel like I'm really far away."
Anoka County Commissioner Carol LeDoux wants to add more daily trips to the Northstar schedule to attract more riders.
"If we are to be a success and change the habits of the driving public, we have to offer more trips," said LeDoux.
Northstar officials say there's a limit to how many trips can be added. At a certain point, they say, the owner of the tracks, Burlington Northern Sante Fe, would want millions more dollars in easement payments to accommodate additional commuter trains.
BNSF was paid more than $100 million for right-of-way access to their tracks.
Northstar officials, not surprisingly, counsel patience where ridership numbers are concerned.
They point to examples in Seattle and Dallas, where commuter rail service is also taking time to catch on.
Northstar officials say talk of extending service to St. Cloud is on indefinite hold, due to a lack of funding. In the meantime, St. Cloud transit officials continue to operate a Northstar bus link to the train.