Metro Transit's overall ridership is up again this year, setting new records. The number of riders went down last year due to the poor economy (a trend which was seen all across the country), but it has now rebounded to 78 million—2.3% above last year, and an absolute increase of around 1.75 million rides. KSTP says this is the 4th time in the last 30 years that Metro Transit has reached 78 million or more.
The Hiawatha light-rail line grew its ridership by 6% (about 600,000) to 10.5 million rides in 2010, breaking the service's 2008 record. According to the agency, core urban bus service grew by 0.7% (about 450,000) to 65 million rides. Their express buses saw ridership grow too—possibly helped by the new Marquette and 2nd Avenue busways in Minneapolis—rising by 2.5% (about 225,000) to 9.2 million rides. There was disappointment with the Northstar commuter line, though, which only carried 710,400 passengers—21% below where they hoped it would be for the year (presumably 900,000). Fortunately, the line still met its budget targets, so counties along the line should see refunds again this year.
I can see a lot of possible reasons why the Northstar Line is having issues. Metro Transit is quick to blame the economy, though I'm skeptical of that excuse. I would have expected express bus service to remain soft if that were the case. Of course, even with an increase this past year, they might still be below 2008 numbers for all I know (I simply don't have the data).
One big problem might just be the expectations themselves. Transit projects around the Twin Cities started using different numbers after the Hiawatha line burst forth with ridership counts that exceeded even 20-year projections. It's hard to pull off that trick a second time, and perhaps suburban residents just aren't as train-happy as their brethren in Minneapolis.
Anyway, if we're restricted to thinking about the line as it currently is, I think the biggest issue is frequency of service and the time of day when it begins and ends. I doubt I'd be able to maintain a train-compatible schedule if I lived along the corridor and took it to work each day. I often end up staying a bit too late at work, or get up too late in the morning. The last train arrives in Minneapolis at 8:10 AM, while the last evening departure is 6:15 PM. Personally, I'd only feel safe if arrivals ran until about 8:45 or 9:00 and departures ran until about 7:00. Unfortunately, it'll cost a lot to run more trains—the Northstar runs on what is basically the busiest freight corridor in the state, so more trains require additional track to add capacity.
Stepping outside of that a bit, I think some of the station locations were poorly chosen. Well, maybe there wasn't much hope for the U.S. 10 corridor, bloated as it is with suburban- and exurban-style development, but at least one of the stations could have been put in a better spot. My biggest gripe is with the Elk River stop, which is more than 2 miles from the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 10 (the only thing I can find that resembles the "center" of Elk River). I figure they should have put it near Lions Park, which would put it just about half a mile from the Main Street intersection.
Of course, probably the biggest issue with the Northstar Line is that it doesn't go to St. Cloud yet. Once it goes all the way, it'll carry far more riders. Mn/DOT figures the line will be able to cover between 90% and 110% of the operating costs with fare revenue, so it should break even at least once in a while. I really wish they'd just fund the extension and be done with it, but I'm sure it'll take many more years of fighting before that happens... I'd like to be surprised, though.