Ridership plunges on Northstar line amid pandemic, sparking debate over its future

A blue and yellow train approaches a station.
The Metro Transit Northstar train pulls into the the station at its last stop in Big Lake, Minn., on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday, Mugesi Ogongi drives from her home in Monticello to the Northstar train station in Big Lake.

Then, she takes the commuter train to Minneapolis, where she works as a mental health professional at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. 

As an essential worker, Ogongi had to commute to work all last year. But in the early days of the pandemic, she said there were sometimes as few as five people on the train. Some riders have returned, she said, but not as many as there used to be before COVID-19.

Ogongi attributes the drop in ridership to people losing their jobs to the pandemic. She’s hoping it picks back up soon.

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"Some of us, we depend on it,” she said. “Without it, I don't know how I would get to work."

Unlike Ogongi, many people have been working from home throughout COVID-19. That shift has had a dramatic effect on the Northstar commuter rail line, which runs 40 miles from Big Lake to Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.

Metro Transit, which operates the line, says ridership is down by a whopping 96 percent since before the pandemic. That's led one state lawmaker to propose ending the Northstar service.

"We need to reinvent and reimagine how we deliver transit," said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville.

Koznick introduced a bill Tuesday that would shutter the commuter rail line and use its funding to assist Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses that were damaged during last year’s unrest after the killing of George Floyd. Northstar’s budget this year is $11.4 million.

Koznick said he realizes that the pandemic has taken a big toll on Northstar's ridership. But even before COVID-19, the rail line wasn't attracting the volume of commuters that was projected when it was built 12 years ago, he said.

"My bill furthers that discussion to say, ‘Hey, do we want to continue to put money into a system that isn't delivering people to downtown Minneapolis, not delivering people where they need to go?’ ” Koznick said. 

“It's kind of a fancy way to get to the Twins game. I get that. But beyond that, I think it's a serious question that needs to have serious consideration."

Koznick said he’s not against public transit, but he thinks commuter buses would be a less expensive and more flexible option for the region. He believes some of the recent changes in work and commuting patterns prompted by COVID-19 might outlive the pandemic. Some experts agree.

People step off of a train onto a platform.
Passengers disembark the Northstar train at the Big Lake station last week.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Before COVID-19, about 7 or 8 percent of people worked from home at least some of the time, said Adeel Lari, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs who has studied and promoted telecommuting for nearly two decades.

“Obviously COVID happened, and certainly the world changed,” Lari said. “And now 40 to 50 percent of people are telecommuting.”

It's not clear what will happen as the world moves out of the rhythms created by the pandemic, Lari said. But he doesn't think all companies will force their workers to return to the office five days a week, now that employees have shown they can be productive at home.

"COVID basically got the genie out of the box,” he said. “Now, they have experience with it. And what we are hearing from everybody is that the model will not be the same as it was before."

The Metropolitan Council, which oversees the transit system, declined to comment on Koznick's proposal. A spokesperson said they’re letting the Legislature debate the bill’s merits.

Shutting down Northstar could obligate the state to pay back millions of dollars in federal funds it received to build the project. Koznick’s proposal directs the Met Council to seek a federal waiver to avoid having to pay those fees.

But supporters of Northstar say the state should be focusing on building the train line’s ridership, not shutting it down.

State Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, called Koznick's proposal a “divisive political stunt.” He strongly believes the solution isn't to end the rail line, but to extend it — another 25 miles from Big Lake to his district in St. Cloud, where there are more potential riders.

"Do you think that having the train end in Big Lake versus ending in a regional center that has businesses and colleges and universities — you think that that might affect ridership?” Wolgamott said. “Northstar never should have stopped in Big Lake in the first place. It needs to be finished and come to St. Cloud.”

A 2020 study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation estimated that extension would cost between $36 million and $257 million, and take five to seven years to complete.

A woman stands with railroad tracks behind her.
Ebere Ofem, a graduate student at St. Cloud State University who lives in Coon Rapids, waits on the platform of the Metro Transit Northstar train station in Big Lake.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Extending Northstar seems less likely now, given the recent ridership declines. But there’s also no indication that the rail service will shut down anytime soon.

Ebere Ofem would love to see the rail line extended. She lives in Coon Rapids, but several days a week she works and attends classes at St. Cloud State University, where she is earning a master’s degree.

Before COVID-19, Ofem would take an afternoon commuter bus from St. Cloud to Big Lake, then ride the Northstar train to Coon Rapids.

But during the pandemic, the number of trips has been reduced, and the trains don’t carry riders south in the evenings. So Ofem waits for an Uber to make the rest of the trip home.

"I pray about it almost every day, because of the cost of coming down here and going back home,” she said. “Most times, I spend about $60 in a day. And then, three times a week — how much am I making? It's crazy."

Rick Sirvio of rural St. Cloud took the Northstar train, then the Link commuter bus from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport home after a recent trip to Florida. 

Sirvio, 77, said he used to commute to the Twin Cities, before the train was an option. He said he rides Northstar occasionally now — mostly when traveling — but hopes the rail line keeps operating.

“The pandemic isn’t going to last forever,” Sirvio said.