Northstar rail fares dropping in August

Weekday peak hour fares on Northstar Commuter Rail will drop by $1 from all but one of the stations effective Aug. 1.

Passengers step off Northstar Commuter Rail at the Anoka station. Fares for almost all stations, except Fridley, will be decreasing by $1 starting Aug. 1. Photo by Eric Hagen

Passengers step off Northstar Commuter Rail at the Anoka station. Fares for almost all stations, except Fridley, will be decreasing by $1 starting Aug. 1. Photo by Eric Hagen

The temporary fare change, which runs through April 30, 2013, was approved by the Metropolitan Council, which operates the commuter rail service via Metro Transit, in an effort to boost ridership.

The reductions do not affect weekend non-rush hour fares, however.

Under the change, the one-way fare from Big Lake to Minneapolis will dip from $7 to $6; Elk River from $5.50 to $4.50; and Anoka and Coon Rapids-Riverdale from $4 to $3.

The fare from Fridley will decrease from $3.25 to $3 as will station-to-station fares.

The one-way fare from the new Ramsey station, which is currently under construction and is scheduled to be completed in November, will be $3.50.

This is the first change since the fares were established when Northstar service began in November 2009.

According to information provided to the Metropolitan Council for its consideration of the fares decrease, the fares put in place at that time were based on economic conditions and the desire to attract ridership.

But Metro Transit surveys of non-Northstar riders living within the Northstar Corridor show that a prime factor in the decision not to ride commuter rail is the fares.

Northstar ridership did not meet expectations in its first full year in 2010 and declined further in 2011.

Ridership on Northstar was 710,426 in 2010 and 703,427 in 2011.

According to John Siqveland, public relations manager, Metro Transit, Northstar ridership through May this year is 2.77 percent below the 2011 figure and 7.25 percent under budget.

But when the Ramsey Station goes on line later this year, that is expected to add 200 extra riders daily to Northstar, Siqveland said.

However, the core ridership on Northstar – the weekday peak hour morning and evening service – has held steady since service began, he said.

It is the weekend and special event service, including trains taking Minnesota Twins fans to and from games at Target Field, where Northstar’s Minneapolis train station is located, that has seen the declines, Siqveland said.

“Fewer people are going to see the Twins,” he said.

“The market perception is that the fares are too high because when people do ride Northstar they like it and tend to come back.”

According to Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, chairman of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority, he was informed that the decision to lower fares was going to happen and although the rail authority had no part in that decision, he applauded the effort to try and boost ridership.

But he is not sure that is going to occur, Look said.

“There might be a 5 percent bump,” he said.

People that he talks to think the current fares are reasonable and he believes lack of ridership is more of an accessibility issue, Look said.

For example, he said where a husband and wife work downtown and have children at home in day care, only one can ride Northstar to work and the other has to take a vehicle because in an emergency of a sick child, one of them would have to drive back home because no Northstar trains run outside the peak hours.

“Ultimately, the project should have been built to replicate the Chicago metro system, which runs every 20 minutes,” Look said. “People I talk to really like the Chicago system.”

However, Look believes that the addition of the Ramsey station will be a shot in the arm for ridership. “I am sticking my neck out, but I think ridership will increase 25 percent, even though it might take a little bit of time,” Look said.

That’s not only because of the 200 rides a day that are anticipated to switch from the current peak hour bus service that has been running from Ramsey to and from Minneapolis, but also from new development around The COR, where the Ramsey station is being built, according to Look.

There will be 400 to 500 new residents from new development in The COR and he is encouraging the developers and Metro Transit to get together to develop an incentive program – for example, residents who sign a year’s lease would get three months of rides free on Northstar, Look said.

In addition, there is a potential market for ridership with the location of the VA Medical Clinic and an Allina Medical Clinic in The COR, he said.

And as development occurs around the other train stations on the Northstar route, ridership should also increase, Look said.

Northstar offers service that is 98 percent on time and not subject to the vagaries of traffic and weather, according to Siqveland.

And when gas prices go up, more people will tend to ride Northstar, Siqveland said.

Surveys show that 90 percent of the people who use the commuter rail service are “very satisfied,” he said.

That compares very well with satisfaction of peer rail services in the country and the retail industry, Siqveland said.

The new fare structure is in place for nine months, at which time Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council will revisit the issue, he said.

During the same time period of the fare reduction, the Metropolitan Council approved a temporary fare change for tokens in which a single token will be valid for both Northstar peak and off-peak fares up to a value of $2.25 with the token price set at $1.75.

Since Northstar service started, the cost of operations has been in line with the budget even though ridership has been lower than projected, Siqveland said.

That has been due to cost containment and favorable fuel prices, he said.

Northstar operations are partially funded by CTIB (Counties Transit Improvement Board), a joint powers board established by the Minnesota Legislature in March 2008 to provide in transit funds – through a .5 percent metro sales tax – for metro area counties that comprise its members, including Anoka and Hennepin counties through which Northstar runs.

Sherburne County, which is not part of CTIB, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) also contribute to the operating budget, so do fares, Siqveland said.

According to materials provided to the Metropolitan Council, cost increases caused by the lower fares, if there is no corresponding increase in ridership, will be covered by the professional services budget in 2012 and if necessary, in 2013 by Northstar budget reserves, which exceed fund balance target.

The Northstar Commuter Rail line provides service on the 40-mile segment of existing track along Highways 10 and 47 from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis.

Northstar trains offer commuter service during prime morning and evening week day rush hours, as well as regular weekend service and some special event service.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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