If you live in Fridley, Minnesota, you've seen the shiny blue and yellow vehicles blur past you along the tracks. What does it represent to you? An innovative solution to our present and future transit problems, or an empty expense?
My children love to see the Northstar whiz by. For a long time, it remained an exciting mystery. Something to admire as it passed through town and sparked our imagination as we fleshed out stories about its passengers.
No one in my family works downtown and we rarely go to sporting events, but at some point, we chose to take a ride as a family outing. The Fridley station proved to be a sparkling facility, tidy and nice sized. The cars were clean, comfortable and inviting, providing the smoothest of rides that allowed us secret views to the innards of the City as we glided to Minneapolis.
This seemed, to me, to be money well spent. To have a Northstar station available in Fridley is a good thing.
Turns out though, there are many who disagree with me. There seems to be big divide about the perception, and consequently, the value of this service. Several Anoka County Commissioners deem it wasteful spending, citing that the demand does not justify the cost.
The Northstar overall has gotten a fairly negative image. Expensive, low ridership, expensive, and expensive. These are the things I hear most about the disapproval of Northstar. Some folks who sit on the fence feel there aren't enough locations, or simply don't think about it much if they don't work down town.
Living in the Midwest, the idea of developing mass transit systems can seem out of place for some. Maybe it's because deep down we identify ourselves more with farming and small towns, instead of a growing metropolis with the challenge of having a very large sprawl between our homes and our places of work. I believe this challenge is only going to become bigger as our population continues to increase.
Former Metropolitan Council member Annette Meeks testifies taxpayers are paying 80% of every ride. Meeks goes on to say that too many excuses have been made for the reasons of low ridership in the three years it’s been open.
Others in the community have stated that if Northstar were a business, it would have closed long ago, so why should we (as taxpayers) continue to support it? Fair enough.
Except it's not a business, it's a public service.
Mass transit is one of the most basic public services available, and therefore one of the most important. We should have safe and reliable transportation at an affordable cost available to everyone, no matter if they are the CEO of Medtronic or a single mother trying to get to one of her multiple jobs.
Let’s look at the main point of Northstar’s opponents; low ridership. There’s a variety of reasons for this. An incomplete infrastructure is one. Resistance to expand the system to make it more usable, and therefore more appealing, is at every turn. The argument is that it’s costing us too much money (now) for a service that has low ridership. Why should we spend more to fund the future?
Ironically, the ability to attract more ridership depends on the variety and number of destinations, which requires expanding the service now despite low ridership. So you see the conundrum.
Investments that address our future problems will always be expensive. They will always be slow(er) to capture the general populace because we're not necessarily in crisis mode with an immediate need. This is the definition of foresight.
So the question really becomes about our perspective. The opponents of Northstar have valid points. It is expensive and costing taxpayers money.
But isn’t this is what tax money is for; the benefit for the many, contributed by the many? What we decide to spend our tax money on as a community is very telling of what we strive to be as a society. Do we choose to be proactive with innovative solutions for all, or reactive with rigid answers for the select few?
I don't think these attributes are mutually exclusive, and I do believe our elected officials do their best to balance the two. They must, in order to have both financial health and thoughtfulness to a diverse community.
Remember those sporting events I rarely go to? Spending (tax) money on new stadiums for a lot of people is a no-brainer. It allows us a professional sports team, it brings business not only to the sporting event and venue (and yes, making private team owners very rich in the process), but also to surrounding restaurants, shops and hotels.
For me though, I will never get my money's worth because I'm not a sports fan. I'm certainly not alone. Even knowing this, I don't have a real problem with tax money funding new stadiums because I can see the overall benefits, even if none of them come to me personally.
I won't get my money's worth out of Northstar either—at least not presently. But I'm able to see the benefits of the bigger picture here too; revivals of the housing and business areas along the routes and destinations, an economical and pleasant commuting solution for my neighbors and friends who do work downtown, keeping more vehicles off the road, and it addresses what I believe is smart transit planning for our future.
I’m not an expert on this subject, not even close. I’m just an average taxpayer living in Fridley, Minnesota. The financial pros and cons around this is complex. I don’t pretend to know the details. I only ask we give some real thought about why we do, or do not, find the investment in this service valuable.
If you haven't experienced the train yet yourself, I encourage you to try it. It might bring a broader vision for you. Or maybe not.
I do promise this: it will be the best ride a couple of bucks can get you, and it’s accessible to everyone, right here in town.
A few links to learn more about transportation and the Northstar Rail.