Skip to Content

This coverage is made possible by grants from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and The McKnight Foundation.

Northstar's rough start shouldn't derail Southwest LRT

Hiawatha's popularity helped push Metro Transit's overall ridership to 78 million.
Photo by MnDOT
Hiawatha's popularity helped push Metro Transit's overall ridership to 78 million.

What's the probability that the Legislature's new Republican leaders will try to use Northstar's disappointing first year as an excuse to derail the metro area's next big transit project — Southwest light rail?

I'd say it's close to 100 percent. Trouble is, the comparison is bogus. Commuter trains like Northstar are distant cousins to the light rail trains that continue to flourish here and around the country. Indeed, the Hiawatha light rail line set a new ridership record last year, with boardings up 6 percent over 2009. Hiawatha's popularity helped push Metro Transit's overall ridership to 78 million, up 2.3 percent — not bad for recessionary times.


With the Central line [PDF] scheduled to open in 2014, light rail's local cachet will continue to rise, at least with the public. Southwest's potential, given the corridor's job growth and income advantages, may be greater still. That line is scheduled to open in 2017 if it can hold onto its support in the Legislature and Congress. But holding on could be difficult in a tough financial and political climate.

"My intent will be to yard these trains; put them on a siding," State Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, the House Transportation Committee's chairman, told the Star Tribune last month. The new GOP leadership wants to "press the pause button" on transit, following the lead of Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who said after November's election that Northstar's performance would "determine the future of mass transit in Minnesota."

It came as no surprise, then, that when Metro Transit's 2010 numbers came out last week critics chose to ignore light rail's success and highlight commuter rail's failure.

A rough start for Northstar
There's no hiding the fact that Northstar flopped in its rookie season, its ridership falling 21 percent below expectations. The reasons were several, including major job cutbacks in downtown Minneapolis (Northstar's business model had been constructed before the recession hit) and the elimination of the Foley Boulevard station in Coon Rapids, an operational mistake that cost the line a bundle of customers.

The main point, however, is that Southwest's potential should be measured against the performance of other light rail lines, not against commuter lines like Northstar. They are very different animals.

SouthwestLRT800.jpg

Click to view a map of the proposed Southwest LRT

Commuter trains are good at only two things: hauling people to work in the morning and home at night; and delivering fans to big events, like ballgames and rock concerts. They typically make a half-dozen runs in the morning and a half-dozen at night over distances of 50 to 75 miles each way. They tend to work best in large urban centers like New York, where more than 900,000 people ride commuter trains each weekday.

In contrast, light rail trains operate all day, with many stops at frequencies of 7 to 10 minutes. They serve all kinds of destinations and purposes over relatively short distances, stopping at airports, universities, hospitals, shopping malls, office parks, downtowns, convention centers and stadiums. Most important, they tend to generate new communities (and new riders) along their routes. In that sense, they operate as both transportation and builders of dense redevelopment that, over time, offers additional lifestyle choice and efficiency to the wider market.

Competition is keen for federal money
To press the pause button on Southwest would penalize the metro area just as it pulls out of a deep recession and resumes its competition against other regions for jobs and prosperity.

"Pausing now is a bad idea because almost 100 other projects across the country are at the same stage as Southwest," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, fresh from meetings with federal transit officials in Washington, D.C. "The queue for federal money is long, and the competition is stiff. If we let even a dozen projects butt in line ahead of us, Southwest will lose five or 10 years. We can't afford that. Southwest should proceed on its merits."

McLaughlin and other transit advocates said last week that they know well the budget challenges facing Washington and St. Paul, and they know that sacrifices will be needed. At the same time, they don't want to lose momentum that they regard as critical to the region's recovery and competitive posture.

"The fact that gasoline is back up to $3.20 a gallon should remind people that we need alternatives," said Barb Thoman, director of the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities. "But we have to make our case."

Can business leaders sway the GOP?
"Business leaders will have to play a role," said State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, noting that chambers of commerce and other influential business supporters of Southwest may have to convince wary GOP legislators.

"Will we panic or will we continue to invest in our future? That's the question," McLaughlin added.

My own view is that government should always view transportation through a long lens — especially now, for two reasons: Efficiency and competitiveness. I think that transit investments now will bring efficiency to development patterns in the decades ahead, saving governments and future citizens untold millions of dollars. And I think that regions with the foresight to make these investments will be rewarded with better jobs, higher property values and more prosperous economies.

Competitiveness is a complex issue in Minnesota. Many rural areas compete with low-cost North and South Dakota and Iowa for jobs. It seems logical, then, for outstate Minnesota to see lower taxes and lax regulation as a competitive advantage. But the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro (along with Rochester) competes on a different field against some of the nation's most sophisticated economies. For them, transportation, lifestyle choices and cultural amenities are probably as important, if not more important, than the tax and regulatory structure.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

Comments (12)

It is the difference between spending and investment, the latter even more important in recessionary times. We begin decades behind metropolitan areas with efficient mass transit, and pay for it every day. A light rail investment should be based on our collective civic judgment of what a vibrant and sustainable region will look like in 2035, not on how many people rode Northstar last year.

We hold roads to an entirely different standard. Nobody ever debates about spending $500 million on an interchange, and everyone assumes these roads pay for themselves (they don't; recent studies show gas taxes and fees cover only half the cost of roads). I've never seen any followup studies on exactly how many cars go through any given new stretch of road, and can't imagine some kind of uproar because the estimate was off by 20% the first year. How about we stop giving roads a free pass and consider all transportation projects on their merits?

I agree about transit. Unfortunately those of us who comment on Minnpost are mostly preaching to the choir.

For this line to be funded, people who live in the SW sector of the metro need to get behind it. Suburban Rebuplican legislators need to perceive this is what their constituents want. If I were running against a transit-negative legislator, I'd make a big deal about how he/she votes on this issue.

Amen to 1, 2 and 3 combined. If we want to prosper in a globally-competitive future – even the thick-headed should get this – we have to invest in infrastructure. For half a century, most of that investment has been in highways, all based on the dual assumptions that cheap oil will always be with us, and that roads pay for themselves. Both are demonstrably false.

Electric cars are a stopgap – a lot of oil goes into the production of everything from plastic dashboards to tires for ANY automobile, regardless of its powerplant or fuel. The auto industry constitutes a HUGE and politically-powerful vested interest in keeping things the way they are, but a reasonable alternative to the automobile needs to be found. Cyclists will point to that 2-wheeler they just rode to work, but even now, much less as boomers continue to age, bicycles aren’t going to work for most of the population, particularly in this climate. Not everyone will want to make a winter commute to test their hormone level and ability to endure pain when it’s 10 below zero.

Richard (and Steve) are right on-target about advocacy. Lots of MinnPost readers seem on board with transit alternatives to the automobile, but preaching to the choir doesn’t convert the heathen, and right now, the heathens are running the show no matter which political party is in the legislature and executive offices of government, whether state or national. Even in pleasant climates, massive changes in attitude and habit will have to take place, and those rarely take place quickly or painlessly.

Frequently forgotten is the uniqueness of this metro area. The stigma of St. Paul area residents spending little time across the river, and vice versa, remains. And the Bloomington-Eden Prairie area is a third orbit that needs to be tied to the other two for the metro area to realize its potential.

"...The auto industry constitutes a HUGE and politically-powerful vested interest in keeping things the way they are, but a reasonable alternative to the automobile needs to be found. ..."

Any of you freedom hating choir boys catch this ad during the Bears/Packers game?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7ycPjlc3eM

Mr. Finn: That ad has been running for months. And it has nothing to do with this post, or this discussion. The Strib editorial today got it right. The biggest problem with Northstar is the schedule -- the last train often doesn't run late enough to accommodate folks who work longer than they planned, or stay in town for dinner, the theatre, etc. Fix that, and you'll get more ridership.

The ad has been running for months? I guess I don't watch enough pro-football on TV. I'm surprised I never saw it mentioned in any of the New Urbanist blogs or literature that I regularly read.

I thought it somewhat relevant as an outrageous example of how the auto industry conflates freedom with car dependency. Something that mass transit critics do also. I apologize if my snarky comment was misconstrued.

Do the people who are planning transit in this area really understand transit?

Does even Transit for Livable Communities understand transit? I look at their maps, and they have a line here and a line there, and nothing about how these are all supposed to fit together.

The Northstar Line was an odd choice for the second rail-based line in the Twin Cities. It runs through a lot of, let's face it, "white flight" suburbs and ends at a town that is not exactly a major destination. They should have either built it all the way to St. Cloud, where both students and professors would have used it for trips to the Cities, or saved it till after the Central Corridor was built.

(I also think that it was a poor idea to bypass Uptown when routing the proposed Southwest line.)

But now that the Northstar Line exists, the writer above is right. It needs to run later in the evening and more often and definitely connect well with other modes of public transit.

Even more so, we need to improve the bus system so that it's easy for residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul (the primary users of mass transit) to live without a car. This could be done with relatively little money. Just take away the Metro Councilors' car keys for three months (preferably in the winter) and tell them to do everything they normally do. We would soon see buses rerouted and rescheduled so that the various lines went to the right places at the right frequencies.

Karen, I can assure you that TLC and lots of transit advocates understand transit very well. The issues you cite are entirely political. Hiawatha came before Central due to politics. Northstar came before Central due to politics.

The Kenilworth alignment of Southwest is absolutely the correct choice. Not only does it cost hundreds of millions less, it serves highly transit-dependent North Minneapolis, providing access to lots of jobs to thousands of people who need them the most. Uptown already has the best transit access in the metro. It doesn't need Southwest LRT to go directly through it. Connecting buses and streetcars will work just fine, even better in the case of the proposed Greenway streetcar, which would connect Southwest and Hiawatha through Uptown.

The article's author, Steve Berg, makes a good insight that almost never gets discussed in Minnesota:

"Competitiveness is a complex issue in Minnesota. Many rural areas compete with low-cost North and South Dakota and Iowa for jobs. It seems logical, then, for outstate Minnesota to see lower taxes and lax regulation as a competitive advantage. But the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro (along with Rochester) competes on a different field against some of the nation's most sophisticated economies. For them, transportation, lifestyle choices and cultural amenities are probably as important, if not more important, than the tax and regulatory structure."

I would only add that the competition is global. The Metro Area needs more control of its own public policies, tax base and infrastructure. Rural legislators frequently don't "get it", although rural Minnesotans who come to the Twin Cities for shopping, cultural, and sporting events usually do get it because they experience the congestion, etc.

The Star Tribune and just about everyone else has missed the mark on Northstar's short comings. The first is the fare structure, nearly double that charged by Metra Commuter Rail in Chicago for comparative distances. The Foley Blvd stop was a giant gaff, one item I complained about in February 2004 at the State Office Building during Northstar hearings. Even today with the proverbial 20/20 vision, few notice this one. Finally I had my long list of rants published by the Anoka ABC newspapers and a short comment in the Star Tribune. Sad to say the local people don't have a clue getting an otherwise excellent service operating like it should be. They don't know what is wrong. Hint, just checkout the operations in Chicago (experienced operators) or Albuquerque (which is much smaller than MSP) for starters.

http://abcnewspapers.com/2011/01/26/letters-to-the-editor-for-jan-28-2011/