Letters to the editor for July 27, 2012

Northstar problems

To the Editor:

The story of the failing Northstar Commuter Rail service in terms of patronage continues on. Currently an article titled “The Great Train Robbery Revisited” by Republican conservative Phil Krinkie is making the rounds.

I had an opportunity to discuss the attributes of rail with him and another Republican conservative from Big Lake at a session in the State Office Building in 2004, years before Northstar turned a wheel. At that time I voiced my alarm over the flawed planning but for different reasons than those cited by Krinkie.

The most problematic issue with the Northstar project has been an arrogance that Minnesota will be reinventing commuter rail service in all respects. The Twin Cities, in fact, is a latecomer to rail transit so making sensible decisions are a matter of getting advice from other experienced commuter rail agencies rather than other new start up commuter rail operations.

Northstar’s fatal error number one is the fare structure which is one of the highest in the nation.

The common misconception is that commuter rail transit is expensive so patrons had better pay the price. But the train has tremendous capacity and once established, delivers people at the lowest cost of any mode, including bus and light rail operations.

A typical weekday load for an arriving Northstar train is somewhere around 200 people or four busloads worth. Commuter rail services, however, are most efficient with rush hour passenger loads from 500 to 1,500 or more.

Since a five-car, 700-passenger train costs the same to operate as a 200-passenger train, the way to achieve this volume and efficiency is with low fares. That is why the world class cities use rail transport as the backbone of their system, cost effective, not expensive.

Northstar management did just exactly the opposite with the fare structure and even boasted about high prices in press releases. Because of the ineptness of the Northstar management team, commuter rail transport costs in the Twin Cities end up to be the most expensive by any measure due to light usage.

But the end result elsewhere is that commuter rail services report per passenger mile costs that are half that of the bus and includes a much more favorable fare box recovery besides.

Commuter rail passengers in general travel over 20 miles, on Northstar it is 25 miles. A bus passenger travels less than five miles, in the Twin Cities, the average is 4.5.

All trips are not equal. Ask any taxi cab driver or a professional in the transport industry, including those in the airline industry. They use the revenue passenger mile figure, (RPM) the only measure that is valid for comparison. People like Phil Krinkie of the Taxpayers League are using incredible measuring techniques, which is ridership.

For all its flaws, Northstar racked up a cost of 88 cents a RPM and it is virtually the same figure that Metro Transit reported for its transit bus service in their 2009 report.

In 2010, Metro Transit’s best year, the bus racked up costs of 80 cents a RPM, while the LRT system’s RPM cost came in at 47 cents, also a typical figure throughout the nation.

Based on facts rather than political, conservative, spin the Taxpayers League should write up an article on the “Great Bus Robbery” because assuming buses replaced Northstar Commuter Rail, there would be little or no savings at all. The service would be unreliable and the Northstar patronage would plummet.

Here are some comparative fares charged by Metra Commuter Rail in Chicago. Using the monthly pass, each round trip from Aurora costs $9.15. Northstar currently charges $14, soon to be $13, for the same distance from Big Lake and Big Lake patrons don’t have income levels anywhere near those of the posh Chicago suburbs. The modest Northstar fare reductions coming won’t win over many additional patrons.

Weekend patronage is a problem for all transit agencies. Metra in Chicago has a $7 weekend pass and an arriving train into Chicago’s Union Station will unload over 1,000 passengers. Northstar will be lucky to get 50 high-fare paying passengers. Northstar charges Big Lake patrons $10.50 for a weekend round trip, higher than Metra’s weekday fare from Aurora. Comparisons from other stations pairs are also similar.

Northstar has created a “Minnesota Mean” fare collection system adapted from the light rail system and is totally unnecessary because Northstar is heavily manned.

Fare collection procedures have a complicated set of rules that confuse passengers and transit police officers. (Yes! The transit police.) Buy your ticket and the conductor or armed policeman will not check your ticket, but see if you have followed the ticketing rules and fine you nearly $200 instead if you made a mistake. And you get a misdemeanor tacked onto your record. Not very nice if you are looking for a job or want to gain entry into Canada.

Illinois is a little kinder and wiser. Patrons are not the enemy. Board a Metra train without a ticket and the conductor sells you one on the spot. If a ticket office was open where you boarded you get charged a $3 service fee. You are not a criminal, just a passenger without a ticket.

Fatal error number two is treating commuter rail passengers like bus and light rail passengers. Suburbanites are very mobile compared with their urban cousins in the big city. Make any part of the transit experience uncomfortable and they will revert back to the comfort of the automobile in a New York minute.

Northstar made the fatal error of using Metro Transit methods, an urban agency used to dealing with hard-core urban problems. Instead of cozy rail stations, commonly found in major cities, Northstar uses light rail type depots that are cold and inhospitable.

But Northstar apparently thinks the train stations are like the light rail stops frequented by transients and undesirables.

Oddly enough, in big bad Chicago, commuter rail stations are constructed for comfort rather than discomfort. For $10 million, Northstar stations could at least be heated and protected from the wind. They are in Texas and they should be in Minnesota.

Suggestion, close the Fridley station and lease it out to Amtrak, it is looking for a station stop in the northern suburbs.

Fridley citizens totally ignore the Metro Transit bus and rail system. Location is everything and Northstar could have figured this location was a loser if it took just one bus ride during rush hour.

The station with the heaviest transit usage for decades has been the Foley Boulevard site. Northstar had a chance to build here and pick up one to 2,000 patrons but opted for Fridley instead with their taxi cab-sized loads.

Suggestion, add a public telephone, shelter from the rain when detraining and at least a restroom at the Target Field Station. Stop treating rail transport as if it were a passing novelty.

Dennis Larson
Coon Rapids


Sad to see Larson leave

To the Editor:

I was happy and sad to learn of Tom Larson’s retirement. Tom has done many great things for our community and residents that will benefit us for many years to come.

I’m sad to see him go but happy that he’ll be able to enjoy many days and nights with his family and friends, without the responsibilities of our district.

He will be leaving a huge spot to be filled and our community will never be the same without him.

Thank you so much, Tom for all your wonderful years of service! God bless you and keep you close.

Cindy Jones


Facts were overlooked

To the Editor:

To June Anderson, your letter of July 6 to the Anoka County Union, clarifies many things.

For example, you obviously believe what you want, regardless of the truth. Believing what you read in the Union is one thing, but believing what you read in The Courier boggles the mind.

After reading your letter, I reread the Union article of April 20 and my letter. You chose to overlook the majority of facts in both writings that support my letter and to believe what you wish.

Apparently you’ve never heard of the Freedom of Information Act and the regulations that require the district to answer questions posed by community members.

While I, personally, have never asked for information over the phone, many others may have.

Since the public has a right to know that the district is doing and the only way to find out is to ask the district, I believe that’s reasonable.

Every page of information provided by the district is charged to the person asking at a rate of 25 cents a page.

Since everything is on computer, information is quickly available a very little cost.

I intend to follow through on your assertion that “Ms. Ness and Mr. Gardner…have a documented record of harassing the ISD school administration…”

Let’s see if such documentation really exists and what can be done about it.

I’ve run out of time and desire to further react to your strange ability to only see and hear what you want.

Any future letters from you to the Union will get all the response they deserve.

Maureen Ness
St. Francis

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