The Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) Executive Committee Thursday decided to recommend to the Authority that the federal application for Northstar Commuter Rail’s St. Cloud extension be placed on hold. The recommendation was made after careful review of the Federal Transit Administration’s required technical analysis.
“While we have remained committed to the original vision for Northstar Commuter Rail service from St. Cloud to downtown Minneapolis, the current data cannot justify the costs of expanding Northstar at this time,” said Felix Schmiesing, Sherburne County Commissioner and NCDA member. “We do not take this decision lightly. We have examined the technical analysis, fully explored potential expansion models and have come to this conclusion in agreement with our project partners. In the end, placing the Northstar expansion on hold for now is the responsible action as stewards of taxpayer money.”
The NCDA — together with Metro Transit, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and other partners on Northstar’s Project Management Team — has been aggressively studying the feasibility of Northstar’s extension since Northstar Commuter Rail and Northstar Link commuter coach bus service began in November 2009. Plans for commuter rail all the way to St. Cloud have been part of the project’s original vision since the NCDA was created more than a dozen years ago.
However, the worst recession in 70 years, high unemployment rates, shifts in traffic volumes, and gasoline and parking price fluctuations have hampered commuter rail ridership growth on the project’s first phase. Additionally, projected ridership for the commuter rail extension to St. Cloud and other factors do not meet the strict standards for federal matching funds nor would they allow Northstar to successfully compete against other transit projects currently under development across the country.
Despite the challenges the current marketplace presents, the initial phase of Minnesota’s first commuter rail line has proven to be a reliable transit option for commuters:
- Northstar customers have ridden more than 16 million passenger miles since service began last November.
- Northstar has developed a loyal customer base, which is expected to grow as the economy improves and workers seek better commuting options.
- Northstar trains operate on time 96 percent of the time with operating costs below budget.
- Northstar is able to effectively respond to the marketplace (e.g. Twins and Vikings special event service).
- Northstar riders have consistently said they enjoy the comfort, convenience and safety of Northstar.
“Northstar has many successes from its first year of service and we have confidence in its ability to deliver long-term benefits to our region,” said Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, chair of the NCDA. “As our economy recovers, reliable transportation alternatives will allow our region to compete for jobs, business and economic growth.”
In the meantime, the NDCA will continue to work closely with Metro Transit, which operates the commuter rail line, to ensure Northstar and Northstar Link provide convenient commuter and special event service to build ridership.
“We will continue to work toward making Northstar’s first phase an even bigger success,” Commissioner Schmiesing said. “We have always considered commuter rail a long-term investment meant to attract jobs and complement our region’s quality of life. Northstar is providing reliable service today because of the support of our project partners, federal, state and local policymakers, BNSF Railway and thousands of supporters statewide. We appreciate their ongoing support of Northstar Commuter Rail.”