Public transit ridership off the rails during COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Hauser
Updated: October 21, 2020 10:20 PM
Created: October 21, 2020 08:20 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on public transit in the Twin Cities.

Look no further than the North Star commuter rail line for proof. According to Metro Transit, ridership is down 96% since last March when the pandemic was declared. To put that into perspective: in April 2019, there were 65,532 riders. In April 2020, the number of riders plunged to 1,352—  a 97.9% decrease. It got even worse in May, dropping from 72,130 riders in 2019 to 1,158 in May 2020, a 98.4% decrease. The numbers have only slightly rebounded in August (down 97%) and September (down 96%).

"People are working from home," says Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla. "People aren't having to get around to special events as much. We need to try to figure this out. What the options are, what's the end result? We don't know."

Padilla says meetings continue between federal, state and local transit "funders" to determine a course of action for all of public transit, but North Star Rail is the most urgent because of the taxpayer subsidies required to run the line even with so many empty train cars.

In 2019, the taxpayer subsidy per ride was $19.39 per passenger. That's considered part of the government's expense of providing public transit. However, that subsidy is skyrocketing because many costs to run the line are fixed, even though fewer trains are running now because of the low demand for service.

The result?

In August, even with the help of the CARES Act pandemic funding from the federal government, the subsidy per passenger for each one-way ride was $445.45. If the CARES Act funding goes away, the subsidy would go to $559.20 per ride, or more than $1,118 for a round-trip. Weekday tickets generally cost commuters $3.25 to $6.25 per ride.

"We need to take a look at the whole transit system but especially what our options can be with the North Star and how we can stop that bleeding," Rep. Jon Koznick, (R-Lakeville), told KSTP. He's a member of the House Transportation Finance Committee.

Koznick says it's a complex problem.

"The Twins games aren't going on. People aren't coming [to Minneapolis] for entertainment purposes. They're not coming for business. The commute has evaporated. The demand has evaporated considerably."

North Star might be down the steepest, but all public transit ridership is down dramatically during the pandemic. The light rail Blue Line between Minneapolis and the Mall of America is down 73%. The light rail Green Line from Union Depot in St. Paul to Target Field in Minneapolis is down 69%. Bus ridership is also down 63%.

Service has been reduced on all systems, but North Star might be the one most in jeopardy of shutting down completely.

"Those are some of the conversations we're having with our funders," Padilla says. "You know, I'm not saying that's going to happen. What I'm saying is everything is on the table."

North Star riders 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke with recently understand the predicament.

"To me, it's an absolute lifesaver," says John Nelson, a disabled Vietnam veteran. "I wouldn't have another way to get to the VA if I didn't have the train from Otsego and then light rail downtown."

He's already had to adjust to reduced service and wouldn't be surprised if the trains stop altogether.

"I could sure understand where the concern is," he told KSTP on an early morning ride in October. "It cost a lot of money to run this even if they're just making two trips each way on a daily basis."

Matt James rides the train every weekday from the Anoka station to Minneapolis to get to his job at the Wells Fargo Center. He says it would be tough to lose the service, but admits he rarely sees more than 40 people on the trains these days compared to 300 to 400 hundred before the pandemic.

"It's important to me because it gets me to work every day and I don't have to worry about managing a second car," he said. "So I think most of us who ride right now really need to be on here."

Koznick says the current funding and subsidy model is not sustainable.

"For every time somebody rides it right now you could pay somebody's rent, almost somebody's mortgage," he says, adding it might be cheaper to rent a car for each North Star rider.


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