Northstar Rail: On Track, or Derailed?

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?

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Wendy Olson October 30, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Having visited other cities where I was able to get everywhere I needed to go, on time, without ever getting into a car, shows me how well it can work. We are really missing out here in the metro area without more access to public transit. I feel my tax dollars are better served expanding the Northstar and other public transportation options than expanding professional sports!
Mandy Meisner October 31, 2012 at 04:04 AM
A side note. I think Northstar has come to a basic debate of "do I ride it, or not" which becomes the deciding factor for its value. We need to embrace the vision and Big Picture, which can be harder to recognize now (but I truly believe will come to pass in time).
Mandy Meisner October 31, 2012 at 04:05 AM
I couldn't agree with you more!
Rod Trocke October 31, 2012 at 06:46 PM
As long as it has to travel on BN's trackage and on a limited schedule, it really isn't of much use.
Donna Schmitt November 03, 2012 at 02:43 AM
Yes, trains are pretty and they are fun to ride. But most daily commuters do not live on a train line (or necessarily want to because of the noise) and they have easier access to buses or roads. Buses are also subsidized public transit but they don't get flooded out like a New York Subway. Buses can change their route if there is an accident or a tree is down in it's path. Buses also cost less to build and maintain. That means the cost per passenger is much less. Your story was very nice but writing nice stories doesn't increase ridership. It is fun to take a train for entertainment but it is everyday riders that increase ridership. When we can access cheaper and more convenient rides with a bus, why drive a car to a station when you can pick up a bus close by?
Mandy Meisner November 03, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Thanks for your comment Donna. A friend of mine brings up the same good points that you do about buses. The train is not meant to replace buses, but rather it's one piece of the large(er) transit system. And as our popluation continues to grow (both here in the Cities and nationwide) I think it will prove to be beneficial. I expressed my opinion about low ridership and expense (though there are certainly many more complicated reasons as well). I rode the train "for fun" becasue I was curious and I felt it was only fair to experience the service before forming a soilid opinion, one way or another. I currently have no need to ride the train on a regualr basis, but still find the value in having and devloping it. I disagree with you about stories. Words (whether written or spoken) that spark real thought and starts a meaningful conversation with others, are ALWAYS the first step to (possible) change.
Bonnie Fournier November 06, 2012 at 03:13 AM
From a financial perspective, I can understand the argument against the Northstar. But I believe this view is far too short-sighted. We are facing a future of rising gas prices, diminishing oil reserves, human population growth outstripping food production, and a severely compromised natural environment, a situation that will only get worse if ignored. I believe trains could play a significant role in addressing these challenges. Finally, consider the price we pay for our current gas-powered vehicle-based society: Global pollution from the oil industry and the vehicles we drive, the billions of dollars spent to maintain our road system, and the millions of acres of arable land currently covered in cement and asphalt. Compared to our cars and buses, the expense of operating trains like the Northstar can be seen as a great bargain and an investment that will certainly pay off in the long run. Seems like something's got to change eventually. Why not take a proactive approach to these problems? The future efficiency of trains as a means of public transportation is without parallel and, in my opinion, an investment well worth making.
John Anderson November 06, 2012 at 03:32 AM
I lived in Washington DC for 10 years. In fact I didn't get my drivers license until I was 24 because I took the Metro everywhere. I loved riding the metro everyday to work, it was the only time in my life I read the paper cover to cover every day. The flaw of trains in Minnesota is about density. Let's take the following subway cities: New York City: 26,402 people per square mile Boston: 13,321 people per square mile Washington DC: 13,038 people per square mile Chicago: 12,750 people per square mile There are some areas in these citys such as Friendship Villiage in Washington DC that have 81,991 ppm and the borough of Manhattan with 69,467 ppm. These cities have rail systems because they are a required part of their infrastructure. Commerce would shut down without this system running every day. The fact is, Minneapolis has a density of 7019 ppm and St. Paul is at 5413 ppm. We simply do not live close enough to each other to make any rail system viable in Minnesota. The argument that we have to build before need it falls short. While it is true that Minnesota is expected to have a population of 5.5 million people by 2025 but the problem with this population increase is that we are not increasing population in our major cities. In fact Minneapolis lost 40 people in between the last two censuses! The trains don't work here because they don't work HERE. Stop wasting money, expand our road system so we can get to where we're going.
Mandy Meisner November 06, 2012 at 04:59 AM
Thanks for your comments and information John. I agree with you, we shouldn't try and duplicate our transit system (to be exactly) like those of the cities you cite. I don't think simply expanding our road system is going to solve our future problems though. Some of the reasons why I think this won't work, Bonnie talks about above...
AKA November 07, 2012 at 06:59 AM
Comparing subways to commuter lines isn't apples to apples. Metro rail services (aka rapid transit) usually cover a smaller urban area than commuter rail does (exurbs/suburbs to metro core). Of course population density in areas served by metro rail will be higher. This isn't to say that Northstar is allowed any less scrutiny however - it's subsidy per passenger is still far too high. Whether this will ever improve depends on factors impacting ridership, including gas prices and the shelved extension of the line to St. Cloud. Too early to know if those will make a difference, or if the line will have the time to find out. This said, to lump all of rail into the commuter rail discussion is a mistake. The subsidy per passenger for light rail is significantly lower than any form of bus transport operating in the Twin Cities today (and, arguably, the average car trip).
Mandy Meisner November 07, 2012 at 12:51 PM
Thank you AKA. You make some very good points and distinctions to think about.
Dale Butler November 07, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Donna, I doubt that you have ridden a crowded bus during rush hour recently. I suspect as gas prices continue to go up, and that will happen, so will North star ridership increase. Also the cost of parking downtown is already ridicously high that expense is also increasing.


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