–A month into Metro Transit’s marketing experiment that cut fares with the hope they would add passengers to the flailing Northstar Commuter Rail line is not working. Initial monthly passenger counts indicate that the experiment may be heading full speed in the wrong direction.
Metro Transit figures obtained by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM) for the first month of the experimental fares indicate that monthly Northstar ridership plunged by more than eight percent , some 12,300 passengers. Northstar train ridership in August 2012 totaled 66,543 passengers compared to 78,898 passengers in August 2011. In both 2010 and 2011, ridership on the commuter line increased from month to month July to August. The August 2012 decline was registered across the board at all Northstar stations with the greatest falloff at the station at the end of the 40 mile line, Big Lake.
Following lackluster results in the first two years of service for the heavily subsidized commuter rail, lower fares were instituted by the Metropolitan Council on August 1st for the purpose of jump-starting ridership. While taxpayers already cover more than 80 percent of the cost of each Northstar rider, transit officials under pressure to produce better results cut fares by $1 per ticket at all stations except Fridley, where the price cut was $.50. The move follows a 2010 decision not to increase temporary introductory Northstar fares as originally planned, again due to disappointing ridership numbers.
Nevertheless, transit officials blamed the ridership deficit on ticket costs and recommended slashing prices further. “Current surveys of non-Northstar Commuter Rail riders living within the Northstar Corridor shows that a prime factor in the decision to not ride the train is the current fare structure and fare set. The recommended temporary fare change reflects current travel market conditions for commuter’s value of long distance service while balancing impacts on fare revenue,” according to Metro Transit.
The nine month fare reduction could result in a maximum estimated revenue loss from ticket sales of $323,000 by the time the temporary prices expire at the end of April, 2013. It would take an increase in ridership of nearly 20 percent to offset the loss in revenue, according to Metro Transit. The majority of any loss in revenue will be repaid by savings in professional and technical services, although further losses will be deducted from the rail line’s reserves.
The once ballyhooed Northstar line debuted with 183,000 fewer passengers than projected in 2010, followed by a 2.5 percent falloff in ridership in 2011. Meanwhile, reliance on public transit in the Twin Cities overall continues to grow, largely on the strength of additional bus ridership.
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