Ridership has not come close to promised. From Finance and Commerce a few months ago:
“Ridership on the Northstar commuter rail line will be about 20 percent less than forecast in its first year of operation, prompting one member of the Metropolitan Council to question whether the $317 million project was worth it.
Officials had projected 897,000 riders total for the Northstar in 2010; after nine months – including the Twins’ season – it now looks like the annual ridership figure will be 715,000.
As a result of the lower numbers, Met Council board members voted unanimously Wednesday to reject fare increases that for more than a year had been set to go into effect Nov. 15.
“Do we ever unravel a transit project that is not successful enough to sustain itself?” asked District 2 Met Councilmember Tony Pistilli.
“I’m not saying we should unravel Northstar yet, but do we have a definition of ‘failure’?” Pistilli, in life outside the Met Council, is chief appraiser and vice president of consumer banking risk management for U.S. Bank.
District 3 Met Councilmember Robert McFarlin, head of the transportation committee – and former interim head of MnDOT – said that “unraveling would be extremely difficult. I believe it’s incumbent upon us that we give what’s in place the best possible shot to succeed.”
But McFarlin added that Pistilli’s question “is an excellent one, and [the lower Northstar ridership numbers] should give us pause looking at other projects that are on the drawing board.”
The Northstar line debuted Nov. 16, 2009, connecting downtown Minneapolis with Big Lake, about 40 miles to the northwest. It was supposed to go the full 80 miles to St. Cloud, a train trip many are hoping becomes a reality soon.
Met Council Chair Peter Bell conceded the figures are “disappointing” and added that while he’s not been involved in discussions about how to “decommission” transit lines, the Met Council does look carefully at bus routes and how they’re performing “and occasionally we eliminate one.””
Anton, Lubov, & Associates (dated April 17, 2003) conducted an economic analysis “Northstar-economics (PDF)” of the line, and in contrast with the optimistic 1998 Parsons-Brickerhoff B/C ratio of 0.26, or the very optimistic 2002 MnDOT B/C ratio of 0.84, they came up with an incredibly optimistic B/C ratio of 1.15 for the line.
Cudos to Parsons-Brinckerhoff.
Proponents will argue that the full line (to Metropolitan St. Cloud) was not built, which is of course true. However that unbuilt segment was expected to be a worse performer than what was actually built.
If current ridership holds (979 persons using the line (round trip) per day (on a 365 day year)), this amounts to a $275,664 capital cost per person. On a per day basis: $61 round trip capital cost and $28 round trip operating cost per day. Or $89 per person.
Fares are up to $7 one-way, or $14 round-trip. Assuming most trips pay the full fare (which they don’t), the daily subsidy is about $75 per day per rider.
I have complained about this before.
Decommissioning should be an option. Not every scheme works. Unlike the Pope, the Metropolitan Council and State Government is not infallible, and need not defend every decision of every predecessor. Every continued dollar supporting the long-distance commutes of a few exurbanites is a dollar that cannot be spent on something more important.
If this kind of mischief were unique to Minnesota, we could pass it off as a mistake. However it is quite common in the transit promoters’ world. ‘Strategic misrepresentation’ as it is politely called has been well-documented by Kain, Pickrell, Richmond, and Flyvbjerg among others.