Group says Northstar rail costing taxpayers too much

Abby Fitch
Abby Fitch of St. Cloud texts on her phone as the Northstar commuter rail line approaches the it's first stop in Elk River Monday, Nov. 16, 2009. The 40-mile route includes six stops while traveling from Big Lake to Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota's first commuter rail line is running an operating deficit of more than $1 million a month, a conservative, nonprofit research organization said.

The figures on the Northstar Commuter Rail, obtained by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, show taxpayers are paying more than Northstar's passengers for the service. Metro Transit officials call the numbers a premature assessment.

Tom Steward, with the Freedom Foundation, said last year, Northstar officials projected passengers would pay about 20 percent of the costs of operating the commuter trains. But, he said, figures show passengers are actually paying about 17 percent.

The average ride on the Northstar line costs $22.37, Steward said, and that taxpayers are paying about $18.75 of that.

"The numbers basically coincide with what we expected in the operating cost and the subsidy for Northstar in the first year of operation," Authority Chairman Dan Erhart said.

Erhart said the subsidies cover only commuters, and the figures highlighted by the Freedom Foundation don't take into consideration passengers to Twins Games.

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"Those trains are filled to the maximum. Actually in a normal four-car train -- we've expanded those to eight-car trains --and we've been filling those up," Erhart said. "Those trips are profitable for Metro Transit and its operation."

Erhart and Metro Transit officials said operating expenses are more than 7 percent below projections and well within the budget. Metro Transit officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement, a Metro Transit spokesman said the Freedom Foundation's assessment is premature.

Projections anticipate passengers will pay 20 percent of expenses with their fares over the course of a 12-month period. Northstar is still less than a year old.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons also pointed out that the budget calls for the commuter rail to carry 890,000 rides this year, and Metro Transit expects it won't achieve that target.

Gibbons said the ridership target increases each month under the assumption that as the service matures, it attracts more customers, but the statement said Northstar is not attracting any new riders under monthly budget predictions because fewer people have jobs in this slumping economy.

The Freedom Foundation's Tom Steward said he questions whether Northstar is worth it for taxpayers. He said it's not taking enough drivers off the road -- only about 1 to 2 percent of the traffic load on Interstate 94 and Highway 10.

"It's really not making a whole lot of dent, I don't think at this point, in traffic levels, commuter times, and it's costing us an arm and a leg," he said.

Northstar officials said they didn't build the rail line just for today or tomorrow. They built Northstar looking out 30 to 50 years as an important transportation option for people.