From a physical and operational standpoint the Northstar Line and Red Line are a night and day difference, but from an implementation and performance standpoint they are actually quite similar.
The Red Line operates every 20 minutes (it used to be every 15 minutes) and had 267,000 rides in 2016 . While the Red Line hasn’t performed to expectations, a new online Cedar Grove Station was built, more stations are planned, a southern extension to Lakeville is proposed, and highway bus rapid transit proposals have not slowed down in the Twin Cities region. On one corridor, the Red Rock Corridor between St. Paul and Hastings, the preferred mode switched from commuter rail to bus rapid transit.
A Red Line bus at the newly opened (in May 2017) online Cedar Grove Station. While the station improves travel time, there is still more to be done to make the Red Line a better service for the Twin Cities region.
The Northstar Line had 711,000 rides in 2016 , but only operates six roundtrips on weekdays and three roundtrips on weekends. A new station at Ramsey was built, a station at Coon Rapids-Foley Boulevard Park & Ride could be built as early as 2020 with the Northern Lights Express project, but commuter rail expansion plans in the region have halted.
People have called the Northstar Line a failure for not meeting ridership expectations, and have assumed commuter rail can’t work in the Twin Cities. However, outside urban studies and transit planning groups, I haven’t heard anyone call the Red Line a failure. If people are calling commuter rail a failed experiment, then what about highway bus rapid transit? To me, neither of these routes are failures, just works in progress.
Both routes weren’t implemented right. The Red Line stops at Mall of America and people are forced to transfer to the Blue Line to get to Downtown Minneapolis. An extension to Minneapolis via Highway 77, Highway 62, and I-35W with stations in Richfield and South Minneapolis would boost ridership significantly as it would serve areas with higher population density and more people who are transit dependent. Hopefully with the Orange Line coming in 2021 this will be seriously considered as both routes could share the 46th Street and Lake Street online stations as well as the stations in Downtown Minneapolis.
A Red Line bus on 28th Avenue in Bloomington, nearing the northern terminus at Mall of America. Buses now use a quicker route on Highway 77 and Lindau Lane to reach Mall of America, but the Red Line is still more of a suburb-to-suburb express bus route than BRT.
The Northstar Line is a half finished project where people need to transfer to a bus to get to St. Cloud. The federal government won’t give the money for an extension until ridership is higher, but we can’t get higher ridership with the status quo of single digit roundtrips and forcing people to transfer to a bus. The idea of extending commuter rail to St. Cloud has been talked about numerous times in the past few years, but the proposals from politicians have not been promising. Governor Mark Dayton proposed a temporary extension that would have only a single roundtrip per day to/from St. Cloud, and State Senator Jerry Relph of St. Cloud proposed cutting one or two of the current Northstar trips to Big Lake and extending one roundtrip to/from St. Cloud so as to make the project have very little or no capital cost (in theory). Neither proposal would be successful, and the right way is to add track capacity on the current route, which is one of the busiest freight rail lines in the state, and add multiple trips throughout the day between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.
A Northstar Line train at the northern terminus in Big Lake. In November of this year it will be nine years since service began, but still no sign of it getting to St. Cloud and truly being completed.
The Red Line and Northstar Line were dealt a bad hand, but they’re here now and its best the transit planners and policymakers turn them from lemons into lemonade.