If taxpayers build it, they will come. That sums up the philosophy behind many commuter and light rail projects, including the proposed extension of Northstar commuter rail from Big Lake to St. Cloud.
"Northstar Commuter Rail was envisioned to go all the way from Minneapolis to the St. Cloud area when 30 governmental units along the line started meeting more than a dozen years ago," according to Dan Erhart, chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. "Eligibility requirements for federal funding caused us to break the project into two parts, but we remain committed to completing what we started."
However, a comparatively inexpensive new express bus from St. Cloud to Big Lake that essentially mimics the proposed rail extension raises questions about demand for rail service between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.
As of the end of May, the new Northstar Link bus service was attracting less than 60 percent of its projected passenger load. That should be a red flag for planners and proponents, who've been on board for expanding Northstar service to St. Cloud from the start.
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The projected number of passengers is supposed to be a key factor in deciding whether to move forward with doubling the length of the 40 mile line. To that end, officials inaugurated the Northstar Link Commuter Bus service last November "to demonstrate the demand for transit services" and "to help make their case for federal funding," as stated on their website catchthelink.com.
"As ridership builds on Northstar Link, it will help us make the case that train service should be extended to St. Cloud, as originally envisioned," said Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, chair of the St. Cloud Extension Committee.
Essentially, the Northstar Link buses serve as a sneak preview of demand for Northstar train service to St. Cloud. The Link's operators, St. Cloud Metro Bus, set a benchmark of 45,000 one-way rides this year, or about 3,750 one-way trips per month.
Six months into the experiment, an analysis by my organization, Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM), indicates proponents of extending Northstar rail service to St. Cloud have a long way to go to make a conclusive case for extending the rail line.
A convenient new $565,000 park and ride lot was built for Link passengers just off Highway 10 in St. Cloud, paid for with state bonding money and additional taxpayer funds from Northstar. Yet most commuters appear to be passing by the amenity, judging from the dozens of empty parking spaces in the park and ride lot.
A FFM researcher also found plenty of available space on the five shuttles that sync up with the Northstar trains at the Big Lake station weekday mornings and afternoons. The researcher recorded a combined total of 68 passengers on the 15 buses monitored over two mornings and one afternoon. On average, there were five passengers and 45 empty seats per bus ride--nine empty seats for every occupied seat. On the first shuttle bus of the day, at 4:15 a.m., the researcher doubled the passenger load on both days he went along for the ride.
Official Northstar statistics back up those results. In May, about 1,700 rides were taken on Link buses, roughly half the average projected monthly ridership. Total ridership for the first six months or so of service falls well short of expectations, with about 13,000 rides, according to FFM analysis.
A common argument holds that commuters are more inclined to ride rail than buses. Yet President Obama's own top transit official recently challenged that assumption.
"Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don't want to hear," said Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff. "One is this -- Paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even die-hard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a 'special' bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet."
Some proponents dismiss the admittedly preliminary Northstar results. "Ridership has been steady, but certainly nothing that paints a picture of overwhelming demand for commuter rail service. Skeptics might claim that's a sign the project should not be expanded. We disagree," the St. Cloud Times recently editorialized.
To their credit, transit officials have responded, eliminating the 4:15 a.m. shuttle and adding a stop in Becker and limited weekend service. Nevertheless, officials appear to be going full speed ahead in pursuit of tens of millions of dollars to extend the Northstar line under the "New Starts" federal transit program, despite underwhelming ridership results.
A truly "new start" would begin with recognizing that the cost of busing St. Cloud commuters to Northstar trains is budgeted at $466,000 this year. That's a relative bargain contrasted with the up to $150 million capital cost of bringing Northstar trains to St. Cloud, plus operating costs. Northstar Link buses could be the missing link taxpayers are looking for to protect their pocketbooks, while keeping their transit options open should demand for commuter rail pick up in future years.
Tom Steward is investigative director for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which describes itself as "an independent, nonprofit educational and research organization that develops and actively advocates the principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, economic freedom, and limited government."